COMMON QUESTIONS ABOUT PROBATION
Many have heard the term probation or being "on paper," but don't really understand what that means. I've listed some of the most common questions I get to help you get an idea of what probation is like. You can always call my office if you have questions about your case and how I might be able to help you.
What does probation mean?
When you have been convicted of a crime (felony or misdemeanor) in Georgia, you may be sentenced to custody time (in a local jail or prison), probation, or a combination of custody and probation. In the most basic terms, probation means that for a certain period of time, the court not will require you to be in custody but it will be watching your behavior, and making you follow some rules. At the end of that probation period, if all goes well, you will have no further obligation to the court on that case. If you break the rules while you are on probation, the judge has the ability to put you in jail for a short period of time or maybe even for the entire balance of whatever probation time you have left. Probation sentences can range from a few months to decades. It just depends on how serious the crime is.
What are the general rules of probation?
In Georgia, the general rules of probation for everyone are:
1) Do not violate the criminal laws of any governmental unit and be of general good behavior. (Most importantly, do not get arrested.)
2) Avoid injurious and vicious habits. (In most cases, consumption of drugs or alcohol is forbidden while on probation. Some judges allow alcohol consumption but most do not.)
3) Avoid persons or places of disreputable or harmful character. (Do not hang out with criminals or in places where crimes occur. This requirement rarely results in a violation unless it comes with you being arrested for something. But still, it is technically a requirement.)
4) Report to your probation officer as directed and let the probation officer visit you at home or elsewhere. (Failing to report to your probation officer is a very common cause of problems on probation. There is more on that below.)
5) Work faithfully at suitable employment insofar as may be possible. (Some probation officers are strict about this - making you apply for jobs if you aren't already employed. Other probation officers don't really pay attention to this requirement.)
6) Do not change your place of abode, move outside the jurisdiction of the court, or leave the State without permission of the probation officer. (In most cases, probation officers allow you to move locally or travel, as long as you clear it with them first. If you leave the area permanently, you will need to talk to your probation officer about transferring your probation.)
7) Support your legal dependents to the best of your ability. (If you have children, provide for them as best you can. This is not usually an issue during probation.)
Will there be other requirements for me while on probation?
In addition to the general rules above, the court may require you to do additional things during your probation. These are called "special conditions" of probation, and should be listed out in your sentence. The special conditions of your probation depend entirely on the details of your case and can differ from case to case. Often they might include some of the following:
- Paying a fine
- Paying restitution to a victim for medical bills, or something that was damaged or stolen
- Paying court-appointed attorney's fees
- Completing some community service hours
- Submitting to random drug/alcohol tests at their drug lab
- Getting a drug/alcohol evaluation and treatment
- Completing DUI school and a victim impact panel
- Having no contact with any victims or witnesses in your case.
- People on First Offender probation are prohibited for possessing firearms.
Does it cost money to be on probation?
Yes, it usually does. In addition to any other fines or fees that are included in your special conditions, there is also a monthly fee that must be paid to the probation office while you are on probation. The exact amount of the fee depends on the jurisdiction where you were sentenced, but I usually tell my clients to budget about $50 per month in probation fees.
What is a probation officer?
A probation officer is the person who is in charge of keeping an eye on you while you are serving your probation sentence. You will be required to meet with them at their office, and they usually have the right to visit your house or employment, and require you to take drug tests whenever they choose. If you fail to report as required, or fail to follow the rules or complete the things a judge has put in your sentence, the probation officer has the power to notify the court of your violations. They may put you on a court calendar so that you will have to come in and speak to the judge about your violations. If the violations are serious enough, a probation officer can seek a warrant for your arrest for those violations. The probation officer is the one who will let you know once you have successfully completed your probation and no longer have any obligation to the court.
How do I know where to go and who my probation officer will be?
At the time of your plea or sentencing after trial, the court will either give you written instructions on where and when to go report to probation for the first time. Sometimes, you can meet with probation immediately after the plea somewhere in the courthouse. Each jurisdiction does it a little differently. Your lawyer will help you with this as well. Once you know where to go for that initial meeting, where and how you report for future meetings will depend on what your probation office tells you.
If you're trying to reach a probation officer in Cobb County - here are some numbers you can try.
- If you are on Felony Probation out of the Cobb Superior Court - you want to call the Cobb Office of Community Supervision at 770-528-4923.
- If you are on Misdemeanor Probation out of the Cobb State Court - you want to call the Sentence Enforcement Unit for Cobb State Court at 770-528-1795.
- If you were originally charged with Felonies in Cobb Superior Court but only pled to misdemeanors - you might be supervised by Georgia Probation Management. Their number is 770-424-4674.
Am I going to have to see my probation officer every single week? Every month?
At the initial meeting, your probation officer will tell you what to expect. In some cases, you might have to report weekly but usually it is monthly. At some of those meetings, you may be drug tested. Much of this will depend on the severity of your crime and how well you are doing on probation. If you are reporting regularly and doing everything they ask, they may allow you to report less often. In some cases, people are allowed to report by phone or mail, which is much easier than having to go to a probation office. Sometimes, you will be allowed to go "non-reporting," which means you are still on probation and must follow the rules, but you do not have to see your probation officer unless they ask. Also note that COVID has changed how people are reporting for probation. Your probation office may adjust their rules while COVID is still at issue.
What if I don't live near where I am being put on probation?
Generally, if you live in a county near the county where you are being sentenced, your probation will stay in the county where you were sentenced. For example, if you live in Fulton, but you were placed on probation in Cobb, they will probably keep your probation in Cobb. So you will have to go to the Cobb probation office to report. However, if you are already on probation in another county like Fulton, it's possible they will consolidate your probation cases under one probation officer in Fulton.
If you live farther away from the county where you are sentenced, they will likely transfer your probation to your home county. For example, if you live in Valdosta, but commit a crime and are placed on probation in Cobb, you should be able to have your probation transferred to Valdosta (Lowndes County) from Cobb. You would have to report in Cobb at least for the first time, so that they can work with the Lowndes County office to transfer your probation down there. Once your probation is transferred, a probation officer in Lowndes County will have a copy of your sentence from Cobb and that officer will be in charge of making sure report in Lowndes, and you do everything the Cobb judge required you to do in your sentence (community service hours, drug tests, etc.). If you have a serious violation of your probation that places in custody, you will be transferred back to the county where your probation originated. So if you were being supervised in Lowndes County (your home county) and committed a serious probation violation in your Cobb case, they will transfer you back up to the Cobb jail and you will have to face your original Cobb judge to deal with the probation violation.
If you live in another state and are placed on probation in Georgia, it is a much more complicated process to get your probation transferred to your home state. The probation offices follow something called the "Interstate Compact" that requires them to follow specific steps in seeking to get your home state to accept your probation supervision. In these cases, you may be required to stay in Georgia for a few days after your sentence so you can be transferred to another state. Keep in mind that if you are just wanting to move to a new state (not a state where you have lived for a period of time), it is possible the new state will refuse to accept your probation. If you live or want to live in another state, it is very important that you talk with your lawyer BEFORE you plead or are sentenced. By planning in advance and working with probation, your lawyer can help make the transition as smooth as possible for you.
What happens if I break a rule of probation?
It will depend on how serious the violation of probation is. For technical violations of your terms of probation (things like not reporting, failing to pay fines or failing a drug test), your probation officer has different options. The probation officer can choose to make you report more often, give you a deadline to get the fees paid, or give you another chance to have a clean drug screen. Most reasonable probation officers will give you these chances to correct your mistake before they choose to react more severely, like issuing an arrest warrant.
If you get a new arrest while on probation (this doesn't usually include minor traffic violations), the probation officer will likely seek a warrant for your arrest for violating your probation. If the officer puts out this warrant, you can be arrested and put in jail for the probation warrant. You can also turn yourself in to the jail or the probation office. If that happens, it is important to get an attorney as soon as possible. When arrested on a probation violation, people can end up sitting in jail for weeks before they see a judge, since judges often do not hear revocation cases except once a month. Having an attorney can help prevent delays that keep you sitting in jail for too long, and work out the best outcome for you.
Severe probation violations, like new arrests, can result in you being ordered to spend some time in custody. If you are arrested on new felony charges, the judge has the ability to revoke the balance of your probation. That means if you have five years of probation left, and you get a new felony charge, the judge can place you in custody for five years. Even if you haven't been found guilty of the new arrest yet, the judge still has the power to revoke your probation and put in you custody on your old case. If you are on first offender probation, the judge even has the power to revoke your first offender status and re-sentence you to maximum allowed under the law. Also, if you continue to have probation revocations while serving your probation, the penalties usually become more severe with each revocation.
Having an attorney to help you is so important when you are facing a probation revocation. Your attorney may be able to get you in front of judge much more quickly, or be able to negotiate a consent order even before you are scheduled to see a judge. Each case is different, so be sure to speak with an attorney as soon as possible.
If I don't want to report to probation, can't I just avoid them until it runs out?
Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. If you fail to report to probation, they can issue a "tolling order" for a judge to sign, along with a warrant for your arrest. This "tolling order" stops the clock on your probation from ticking. For example, if you are given two years of probation and never report, the tolling order mean you still have 2 years of probation waiting for you once they find you, even if it takes them years to find you. What's worse is if a judge hears that you have refused to report to probation, that judge is very likely going to put you in custody for some length of time because they will think you can no longer be trusted to be on probation. This is why I always tell my clients that refusing to report to probation often makes things much more difficult for you in the long run. If you have a small problem with probation, its better to confront it head on and try to work it out instead of running from it.
Can I end my probation earlier than it says on my sentence?
Yes, it is possible to get an early termination of your probation. In some cases, your sentence will include a "behavioral incentive date" or early termination date from the beginning. For example, you may be given a 5 year probation sentence, with an early termination or behavioral incentive date of 3 years. So, if you have no problems on probation, your probation will actually end at the three year point instead of the 5 year point. However, if you don't do well on probation, you may have to be on it for the entire 5 years.
Even if you don't have an early termination date set into your sentence, you can still ask a judge to terminate your probation early. This is usually done through a motion or consent order presented to the judge who originally sentenced you. The prosecutor can object to you wanting to terminate your probation, so you should work with an attorney to get this done. It can be tricky to do on your own. I regularly file these motions for clients and have had great success. How long you have been on probation and demonstrating ways that probation is causing harm to you or your family are key issues in convincing a prosecutor and a judge to allow you to terminate your probation early.