Different Types of Probation

Types of probation

The legal system is like a living organism, always morphing and changing according to the political climate, social science, and public finances. In recent decades the pendulum of justice has moved from heavy-handed incarceration (prison terms) to a more nuanced, socially conscious use of safety nets. That means that instead of sending people to prison for non-violent offenses as happened following the 1980’s “tough on crime” era, people are more likely to get supervised release with court-mandated programs to treat the underlying causes of their criminal behavior, such as drug use, poverty, family, and mental health issues.
Probation has been part of the court system since the 1890s in some states, with a federal program of probation introduced in the 1920s.

What is Probation?

When a judge or magistrate determines that a person charged with a crime is a first-time nonviolent offender and/or has the potential to be redeemed, the individual may be offered probation rather than a jail or prison sentence. Probation is usually a supervised, court-mandated alternative to incarceration. There are several types of probation with different levels of supervision and/or court involvement. Each requires a form of tracking or checking in to create a probation record for proof that the sentence has been satisfied. If a person does not complete the court-mandated requirements of probation the court may decide to extend the sentence until the conditions have been met or they may be sent to jail for the remainder of the sentence.
The basic similarities of all types of probation include:

  • a requirement that the individual stay out of trouble during their probationary period
  • that all requirements of the probation sentence be completed
  • that the person stay within a specific area 
  • that the person checks in regularly with their probation officer
  • that the person holds a regular job
  • that the person continues their education
  •  an agreement to waive Fourth Amendment rights, allowing law enforcement or court officers to search the person’s home when necessary.

Types of Probation

Monitoring bracelet is commonly used in probation

Courts have some ability to create a probationary framework for an individual according to the charges against them: some are required to take classes to address their underlying issues, such as drug or alcohol abuse, or behavior management for anger issues. Those with young children who face domestic abuse charges may be required to take parenting classes.
Courts have many options for making probation more or less punitive and restrictive, including by applying the following versions of probation:

  • Informal Probation – essentially an unsupervised period in which the individual must comply with court requirements like paying fines and doing community service as well as staying out of trouble. Despite the informality, individuals are still tracked and a probation record created
  • Formal Probation – a court-mandated alternative to jail or prison with strict requirements for attending behavior modification classes, checking in regularly with a probation officer, staying within a specific area, and oftentimes, wearing a monitoring bracelet. Formal probation may also include regular court appearances to evaluate the individual’s behavior and compliance with the terms of their probation to determine if the period should be extended or requirements increased.
  • Community Control – this type of probation severely limits the movement of the individual, often by using a monitoring device (the base transmitter is kept in the individual’s home and the bracelet/anklet must be matched with the transmitter on demand). This type of probation is often remotely monitored, allowing the individual to attend school, keep a job, and complete court-mandated diversion programs.
  • Shock Probation – Judges who believe that a young person “headed down the wrong road” can be persuaded to stay out of trouble may use this type of probation. Shock probation involves sending the individual to jail or prison for a portion of their sentence, just to get a taste of it, then suspending the remaining period of incarceration in favor of some form of supervised probation. This ensures the individual clearly understands what awaits if they fall back into habitual crime.
  • Crime-specific probation – states may take the guesswork out of probation by setting up specific programs for those found responsible for certain crimes. For instance, a person arrested with a controlled substance (drugs) may be required to attend drug abuse classes, submit to drug testing on a regular basis, and report to a probation officer weekly. Another person found responsible for domestic violence may be required, as part of a crime-specific probation, to surrender any guns or weapons, to attend behavior modification classes, to pay restitution to the victim, and report frequently to a probation officer. Many probation orders require the individual to abstain from alcohol or drug use and to stay away from people who they got in trouble with previously.

What Is The Difference Between Formal and Informal Probation?

Informal probation is loosely controlled, generally with just a few conditions for community service or restitution. Formal probation has much higher requirements for reporting to a probation officer, maintaining a regular schedule of work and school, and staying within a defined area (generally traveling out of state without the advance approval of the probation officer is a significant offense). Formal probation denotes a more serious punishment, so if probation is violated the court may revoke the privilege and send the individual to jail or prison to serve the reminder of their sentence.

Financial and Political Considerations

Probation vs. incarceration

In a survey of states a nonprofit organization determined that at least nine states spend over $50,000 per inmate per year to keep an individual in prison. Other states spent as little as $15,000 per individual, putting the average cost at over $33,000. 
Many states including Michigan, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania spend more than $1 billion per year on state prisons, with California spending $8 billion per year. Considering that a significant number of inmates were nonviolent offenders swept up in the 1980s “get tough on crime” initiatives and do not pose a threat to society, there has been a new effort at prison reform that emphasizes behavior-changing probation programs over incarceration.