What Happens When You Can’t Work Probation?


Criminal defendants whose crimes are not serious and/or who have little to no prior criminal history may find that they are offered a term of probation as opposed to incarceration upon their conviction. Many criminal defendants faced with this prospect leap at the opportunity for probation, and rightly so:

Probation means that they do not have to remain in jail or serve a jail sentence up front (in most cases);

Probation means they can usually return to their homes and families;

Probation means they have an opportunity to obtain employment and begin getting their life back together;

Probation means that they may have access to services that can help them deal with problematic or addictive behaviors so they run a reduced risk of committing additional crimes.

Just because probation has these and other benefits does not mean that probation is an “easier” sentence than a term of incarceration. Probation requires defendants to comply with certain terms and conditions or else face the risk of being put in jail or prison and serving a term of incarceration. This risk of incarceration lasts as long as the term of probation: a defendant can perform marvelously for 11 months of a 12-month probation period only to be sentenced to serve a term of confinement in the last month. Some of the terms that probationers must comply with include:

  • Meeting with a probation officer on a regular basis;
  • Submitting to random blood, breath, or urine tests;
  • Remaining free from illegal drug use or alcohol use;
  • Avoiding contact with the victims in the defendant’s case;
  • Avoid associating with convicted felons or other individuals designated by the probation officer;
  • Attending substance abuse treatment or meetings as directed or recommended;
  • Paying fines, fees, and costs as assessed; and
  • Refrain from violating any local, state, or federal laws.

What Happens if I Can’t Comply with the Terms of Probation

Many probationers make the mistake of hiding and avoiding their probation officer when they violate a condition of their probation or find that they will not be able to complete their probation as ordered. This often compounds the probationer’s problem and leads to additional legal woes such as the issuance of arrest warrants. If you find that you cannot or have not complied with your probation, seek out assistance from an experienced criminal defense attorney and discuss your situation with him or her. He or she may recommend that you:

  • Speak with your probation officer right away – preferably before there is a problem. Some probation officers are willing to work with probationers who are honestly attempting to successfully complete their probation. If you are having difficulty finding a job, for example, tell your probation officer about where you have been looking and what (if anything) you have heard from potential employers about why you are not being hired. Together you and your probation officer may be able to formulate a plan to help you overcome this hurdle or your probation officer may do away with one or more conditions of probation altogether.
  • Be prepared to document your efforts to comply with probation. Probation officers and courts (especially) tend to give more leeway to probationers who are having trouble complying with their terms when the probationer can document how he or she has attempted to comply. For example, if you are having trouble paying off your fines and costs, be prepared to show your probation officer and the court your budget, including your expenses and income, as well as the payments you have been able to make. This will usually put you in a favorable position to argue that your probation should be extended to allow you to finish complying with the probation’s terms or that you should be released from probation with no further sanction or penalty.