Interviewer: Are probation officers (POs) determined to nail people for anything they can, or do they try to help rehabilitate people?
Ladan Law: In any state agency, there are good probation officers and there are bad probation officers. There are probation officers who enjoy their power. There are also probation officers who work towards a common good, and really the rehabilitative aspect of any criminal punishment.
You are randomly assigned. So you do not get to pick which particular example of a probation officer you will get. The legislature has also cracked down on probation officers' discretion. Before, if they found a violation of probation, they would do an informal sanction or bring the person before the court to be admonished by the judge. Now, it is likely a violation of probation will be filed. There are significant consequences for somebody on probation alleged to have violated their probation.
Interviewer: With probation you have to meet with your probation officer on a certain schedule, and you may have classes. What are the ways in which people commonly violate probation?
Ladan Law: There are number of ways. The most common, believe it or not, is to test positive on a random urinalysis. It is a standard condition. I would say a vast majority of my violations are drug-related, meaning some substance comes up during a random urinalysis. Also, not completing your sanctions on time is a very common reason to violate probation.
Picking up a new law offense while on probation is very common too. Then we get into smaller, technical violations of perhaps not being truthful with an officer; not reporting a change of address; repeatedly not showing up to an appointment on time; and being excluded from a class because you have consistently shown up late. All these things can violate your probation.
New law offenses are the most serious violations. The rest of the violations are considered to be technical violations and less serious. Still, the ultimate ruling from the judge will be the same. If you have violated probation, you have violated probation.
Interviewer: Do probation officers show any discretion with violated probation? Do they sometimes let you slide?
Ladan Law: I have seen probation officers bend over backwards to keep from violating somebody. Remember, any violation must be willful and it must be substantial. You can call in 15 minutes before an appointment; let them know you are stuck in traffic; and then show up. Then, it is not likely a judge will find that to be a willful and substantial violation. Oftentimes, POs will let that type of thing slide.
With positive drug tests or new law offenses, you can virtually guarantee that your probation officer's hands are tied. They are going to violate you. As far as the range in between those examples, with every technical thing you can think of, it really comes down to the individual discretion of the PO and the PO’s personality. Some are more hair-triggered than others to file a violation.
Interviewer: Does the term "new offenses" mean you commit another crime?
Ladan Law: That is what I mean, and it doesn't need to be that you are proven guilty of a crime. It is a simple allegation that there is probable cause to believe you have committed a crime.
Although in the criminal system you are presumed to be innocent, the violation of probation prosecutor can still move forward with prosecution. It is easier for the prosecutor to prove that new law offense with a lower standard in a violation of probation hearing, than it actually would be in the criminal offense.
Push that example to the extreme. You could be accused of a crime and that accusation could be used to show a violation of your probation. Meanwhile, you could later be acquitted of the offense. It is problematic. Now, the timing of those cases does not generally work out that way. Ordinarily, a violation of probation hearing will be after some resolution has been made with the new law offense.