Probation is the term for a conditional release from court and prison detention; it may either be
imposed by a judge instead of prison time or may be imposed as a sentence in whole or in part. It
differs from parole, which is the supervised period that many people serve after they are released from
a prison term.
There are more than 4.5 million adults on probation or parole in the U.S.
Each probation officer is required to keep detailed records of his contact with individuals under his
supervision. In order to locate the probation records of an individual, one must locate the probation
department in the judicial district where the individual lives. Records immediately available may be
limited to the probation conditions imposed by the judge. An additional request may be necessary to get
up to date records of compliance and check-ins with a probation officer when applicable. Oftentimes
probation records will simply note that the period was served, without any specifics.
What is Probation?
Generally, probation has a number of conditions attached, often requiring supervision by a probation
officer, a court official who keeps track of the person sentenced to probation. The judge will stipulate
how often the probation officer must see the person serving probation.
Some of the most common conditions of probation include no drugs or alcohol, a schedule of drug testing,
not getting arrested again, staying away from certain people, completing a period of community service,
paying restitution (a fine), keeping a full-time job, and not leaving the state without prior approval
of the probation officer. Additional conditions may include living at a specific location, participation
in a behavior modification or educational program, and to adhere to a curfew.
Violating the terms of probation may result in being sent to jail, however there are other solutions
available to the judge, including imposing a longer probation, changing the conditions of probation, and
imposing higher fines. The individual on probation has a right to a hearing if probation conditions are
changed due to an alleged violation. Any of these proceedings become part of the individual’s probation
Types of Probation
Probation may be supervised or unsupervised: some individuals have stringent conditions attached to
their probationary term, including drug testing and frequent checks with a probation officer. Others may
be given an educational or behavioral modification class to attend as their probation, and successful
completion is the written confirmation of the instructor without involvement of a probation officer.
Informal probation is a situation in which an individual is simply given a court-ordered period to “stay
out of trouble” following an arrest. Charges may be dismissed following a successful period of
unsupervised informal probation.
History of Probation
Courts used probation on an unofficial basis, at the discretion of individual judges prior to the
federal Probation Act of 1925 that codified the practice. The use of probation allegedly began around
1840 when a cobbler in Boston asked a judge to suspend the sentence of a habitual drunkard. The cobbler
took the man under his wing and when he next appeared before the judge he was reformed. The first known
probation officer was a former police officer hired by the mayor of Boston in the 1870s.