What does getting sentenced to probation mean? We get asked this a lot, especially by clients and families with little or no experience in the criminal justice system.

Here’s the most important thing probation means to you: you’re not going to prison at all, or at least for the whole time the judge sentences you to prison…IF you obey the terms of your probation. Typical terms of probation are discussed in another article on this website.

Of course, all the tricky stuff is in the details.

Here’s the “Fine Print” About Probation Sentences

Let’s repeat the main point that you most want to know: no prison! As long as you keep your nose clean and stick to the rules—the probation terms that are specific to your case—you will be allowed to keep your freedom. And that’s so, so much better than being locked away in a cell.

The Maximum Term

The longest you can serve on probation is five years—even if the crime you’re sentenced for could put you in prison way longer. If you complete the term of your probation, your sentence is completed.

How a Probation Sentence Works

First, the crime you’re convicted of must be eligible for probation; state law says that some serious offenses simply don’t qualify. For an example, let’s pick one that is eligible: say you plead guilty to burglary in the second degree, non-violent. That’s a felony carrying up to 10 years in prison.

In a typical probationary sentence, the judge sentences you to prison but suspends it. Suspending a prison sentence is just like getting suspended from school—you don’t go. So the judge might sentence you to eight years of prison, suspended to three years’ probation. That’s right: if you behave yourself by following the terms of your probation for three years, you will avoid spending eight years in prison.

If it sounds like you got off almost scot-free, think again. Probation has an extremely important condition to make sure you abide by its terms.

How Probation Is Enforced

Violating probation can activate your suspended prison sentence. If you don’t do exactly what your probation agent says, he can haul you back in front of the judge to be sentenced to harsher probation…or even up to the entire suspended prison term. The incentive for you to complete your three years’ probation without a peep is the eight years of prison hanging over your head if you don’t.

What Our Clients Think

At Holland & Usry, the chief question most clients have is, “Can I win my case?” The chief concern most client have is, though, is: “Will I go to prison?”

Our primary goal is always to win your case, but if we can’t, and prison is a real possibility, we work extremely hard to build a defense proving you worthy of probation. We don’t like our people going to prison, and we work awfully hard to prevent it.

If you’ve got a criminal case where prison is a possibility, you need a professional to build a strong defense to win your case or convince a solicitor and judge you don’t need to go to prison. This is not a time to go it alone or bargain-basement shop for the cheapest lawyer—unless your freedom is cheap to you. If it’s not, email us to schedule a free meeting to discuss your case and how we can help you win it…or at least keep you out of a jumpsuit.


Rob Usry
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Rob is a Spartanburg personal injury lawyer. Rob also practices as a workers' compensation attorney.