The 5 things you need to know to be successful on probation

What you don’t need to know is what your probation officer wants from you. Why? Because what she doesn’t want from you is far more important to your success on probation.

See this train? It’s coming right at ya.

That is to say she doesn’t want you to be one of her daily, weekly, or monthly problems. It’s as simple and straight forward as that.

To understand this abstraction, I’ve distilled what you need to know down to five things. So, here they are:

1. Your probation officer is your personal police officer.

Probation officers are law enforcement officers and the probation department is a very specific kind of police department. No matter what they tell you or how they see themselves, they are there to enforce very specific rules that apply only to you. Those rules are the terms and conditions of your probation.

2. These are the terms and conditions of your probation. There are many like them, but these are yours. They are your life. You must master them as you must master your life.

The beginning stanzas of the Rifleman’s Creed applies to the terms and conditions of your probation: “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless.” Let’s restate the Creed to apply to you and your situation: “These are the terms and conditions of my probation. There are many like them, but these are mine. They are my life. I must master them as I must master my life. Without my diligent adherence to them, my terms and conditions are useless as a tool of my rehabilitation. Without my terms and conditions of probation, I will be revoked and become useless.” If you know yourself and can’t do this, negotiate an early plea with the early resolution discount and do the time because if you don’t, you will do the time on the installment plan: a couple of weeks here, a month there, another few days pretty soon, etc.

3. It is difficult to get a probation officer to remember all the things you did right when getting you off her case load depends on her not remembering them.

The consequences of a probation officer’s mistakes, sloppiness, or bad attitude will accrue to you and only you. They are the cop. You are the prime suspect, always subject to arrest. The culture of law enforcement endows them with the authority to always be right even when they are wrong. So, your best approach is to give them the fewest opportunities to make mistakes, be sloppy, or feel disrespected. (How you personally feel about them is beside the point.) The way you do that is to complete all your probation requirements, if possible, no later than 6 months into probation: that means all the community service, all the classes, paying all the restitution, fines, and fees, reporting as required every month without exception, leaving nothing undone. After about 6 months, any little problem, delay, or friction between you and the probation officer will result in said probation officer wanting to revoke you and get you off their case load because you are a problem and they do not want problems. They will exaggerate your mistakes. They will forget all the things you did right. As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Let’s restate this quotable quote to apply to your situation: “It is difficult to get a probation officer to remember all the things you did right when getting you off her case load depends on her not remembering them.”

4. Record-keeping is key and your probation officer or service provider cannot be counted on to do it for you.

No matter what the obligation, you and only you can count on you to keep good records.

Let’s break that down. Let’s take community service, among many possible probation requirements, as an example. Let’s assume you have 100 community service hours to do.

Now let’s assume you’ve been assigned to an animal shelter to do your hours. Most providers agree to keep records of attendance and transmit them to the probation department. Let’s assume this animal shelter is no different. Keep in mind the animal shelter’s mission is caring for animals without homes. It is not in the business of simply providing you with a place to perform the obligations of your probation. You should assume that maintaining a record of your hours and transmitting it to your probation officer is not their focus. There will never be a consequence to them if they lose the sign in sheet or forget to transmit the hours. You are their good deed to the community even though they may be receiving free services in return.

So, what do you do? This is so obvious it shouldn’t be one of the five things to know. Let’s state the obvious anyway. You keep your own records.

The best way to do this is on the service providers own forms. You sign on their form and keep an identical form that you also sign and keep yourself. If you can’t use their form, a simple sheet of lined paper is good enough. And don’t stop there. Use that smartphone to take a picture of your sign in. The picture will not only have a date stamp, but it will be GPS encoded (if this feature is turned on, of course). Could there be any better proof you were there on the date and time you said you were? Yes, a video. But it probably won’t be necessary if you do the forgoing.

Remember what I said above about law enforcement culture. Your probation officer will never admit that their record-keeping is poor.

Keep your own records.

5. Don’t do drugs or drink alcohol while on probation.

Everything else will be much easier if you stay sober. And one dirty drug test will often completely wipe out any good will or good performance with regard to the rest of your obligations. Find a way to maintain sobriety. How you do that is up to you. If you know you can’t, don’t accept probation. Do the time instead.

The only caveat is that some jurisdictions (California) are moving away from dirty UAs as a basis to revoke or modify your probation. This is in line with recent research on addiction, but Texas and New Mexico are far behind the curve in relation to addiction and rehabilitation science. And frankly, probation officers like the dirty UA. It’s a great tool for them to get you off their case load.

Good luck out there!

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