Probation for Minor Offenses: Sometimes, It’s Not Always the Happy Ending You’d Expect

LBN’s Emily Collins reports that probation, one alternative to jail time, can be a good thing, but it doesn’t always work as you might expect. Probation and parole are becoming increasingly popular in states that are trying to reduce incarceration. Sometimes, however, the system is rather hard on people convicted of misdemeanors.

The New York Times recently reported on the story of Donyelle Hall, who pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge in exchange for entering a probation program. Successful completion of the program would mean that she would avoid a conviction. At the time, she had no points on her license and had never been in trouble with the law. The story in the Times recounts Ms. Hall’s continuing struggles over the next eighteen months, during which time she had a number of court appearances, she lost wages, she paid attorney fees, and ultimately she spent a month in jail because she could not afford a bond set by the court.

Dee Bell

Dee Bell

Dee Bell, the Interim Executive Director of the American Parole and Probation Association, points out that, in her home state of Georgia, a situation like this would not have occurred. Instead, Ms. Hall would have been sent through an assessment process, and she might have had a relatively minor fee to pay for her court appearance. Had she not violated her probation within a year, everything would have been dismissed.

Bell says that alternatives to incarceration have been gaining traction in the last decade. Associated with this is the notion that an offender should repair the harm that has been caused. Offenders should be accountable for their actions. If there was harm to the community, there should be an assessment of how to best repair the harm. Bell says that this works especially well in the case of minor crimes. “When we can craft a response to minor crimes for a person who has done harm, . . . that’s generally the best way to assure that there will be no further harm.”

Probation, if mismanaged, can disrupt the otherwise stable life of many nonviolent offenders.

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