What is probation?

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What is probation?

Probation is when someone convicted or accused of a crime is ordered by a court to be supervised in their community by a probation officer and follow certain conditions.

For someone accused of a crime, probation can be used as a condition of bail, a diversionary program, or a peace bond

For someone convicted of a crime, probation can be part of their sentence, sometimes called a “probation order.” 

It is worth noting that the word probation sometimes refers to the government agency that administers/oversees the supervision of someone on probation, including probation officers. For example, probation orders often include conditions like, “report to probation within two business days and thereafter as directed,” and “reside where approved by probation and notify probation of any chance in name, address, or occupation.”

It is important to understand that probation and parole are two different things. I have a separate FAQ about the differences between probation and parole.

When can probation be ordered?

A judge can order probation when it is attached to one of the following sentences:

  • A suspended sentence.
  • A conditional discharge.
  • A prison sentence of two years or less.
  • A fine.

Probation cannot be ordered along with a fine and a prison sentence, or with a fine and a suspended sentence.

A suspended sentence allows the offender to serve their sentence under probation instead of in prison. However, if the offender breaches their probation conditions, then their sentence suspension may be revoked, and they may have to serve some or all of the sentence in prison.

A conditional discharge allows the accused to avoid a criminal record of being convicted of the charged offence by serving a term of probation with certain conditions. I have a separate FAQ on conditional discharges.

For an offender sentenced to a prison sentence and probation, the probation starts once the prison sentence ends. I have a separate FAQ on prison sentences.

How long is probation?

Terms of probation can be as long as three years, but are more commonly one or two years.

What are probation conditions?

Probation conditions are rules that must be followed for the entire term of probation. If the rules are not followed, then the conditions are “breached,” which is a separate criminal offence and can have other consequences, depending on the kind of sentence ordered.

All probation orders have the following conditions (although the wording/specifics might vary slightly – always read your probation order):

  • Keep the peace and be of good behaviour;
  • Appear before the court when required to do so by the court.
  • Notify the court or the probation officer in advance of any change of name or address, and promptly notify the court or the probation officer of any change of employment or occupation.

Almost all probation orders have more conditions than just those three. Examples of other common probation conditions are to:

  • Report to probation within two working days (or as the court directs) and thereafter as required by probation.
  • Remain in Alberta.
  • Live at a certain address or where probation approves.
  • Not contact named person(s) (usually the victim) (“no-contact”). (I have a separate FAQ on no-go conditions and what happens if they are breached.)
  • Not attend within a specified distance of named place(s) (“no-go”).
  • Attend for certain counselling or treatment.
  • Not consume alcohol or drugs not prescribed to you (or not attend any liquor stores or bars; or not be intoxicated in public).
  • Not possess any weapons.

What happens if I breach my probation conditions?

Breaching your probation conditions is very serious. You will probably be charged with a separate offence for failing to comply with your probation condition. That separate charge could mean going to jail, or at least having a bail hearing. The other consequences will depend on the nature of your original sentence.

If you received a suspended sentence with probation, then you may have to serve the suspended sentence in jail.

Can probation conditions be changed?

A probation order can be changed by a judge based on an application by the offender, the crown prosecutor, or the probation officer. The judge can change the conditions of the probation order, decrease the length of the probation order, or altogether relieve the offender of having to follow the probation order. This is an involved application, and the judge will not make these changes without good reason.

What is the difference between probation and parole? 

Parole and probation are different types of community supervision with conditions. Parole is a form of release from prison once a portion of a prison sentence has been served, while probation is a sentence that a judge can impose in certain situations.

I discuss the differences between parole and probation in more depth in my separate FAQ on the topic.