But what does it mean, exactly?
Many things, in reality. The beauty of probation as a resolution to an offense is its inherent flexibility. Basically, fundamentally, it is a prison sentence that is put on hold for a period of time, during which the probationer must follow certain conditions imposed upon him by the court. In the case of a plea deal, these conditions are agreed to by the State, the defense, and the court.
So, for example, if you are convicted of felony DWI you might be given a five year prison sentence, but have that sentence probated for seven years. That means that during that seven-year period you will have to abide by a set of conditions and if you don't, the judge can revoke your probation and sentence you to any term of between two years (the minimum for a felony DWI) and five years (your original sentence).
These are some of the conditions normally associated with probation:
- a number of community service hours (picking up trash, sorting clothes at a charity store, etc.);
- treatment for drug or alcohol addiction (which can be either in-patient or out-patient treatment);
- counseling for other issues (e.g., anger management);
- obtaining education (especially for younger defendants);
- a fine;
- a requirement to stay away or not contact an individual (in cases of assault) or a place (in cases of theft);
- paying restitution to the victim (e.g., in theft cases, or assault cases when medical services needed paying for);
- other prohibited activity: owning a weapon, drinking alcohol, driving even;
- testifying truthfully at the trial of a co-defendant;
- jail time. As a condition of probation, a defendant can agree to or be ordered to serve up to six months in the county jail.
Probation, if diligently observed and enforced, can be a great way to get someone back on track. It is dependent on that person working towards law-abidingness (yes, that's a word now).
But probation has another function, as well as being used for rehabilitation: a second chance. Every now and again, someone behaves out of character and does something illegal, perhaps even seriously illegal. In those instances, probation can be a recognition that the act was a one-off and that the person deserves punishment in the form of community supervision instead of time in the penitentiary.
Until recently probation was available for pretty much every offense on the books, but then the legislature decided that one offense never warranted probation: murder. I can see why they might have done that.