Sentencing alternatives

Successful Probation

What happens after I've been arrested, and have to go to court?

Criminal cases start with either an arrest or citation (a "ticket"), and a requirement that you come to court.

For misdemeanors: If you have an attorney (and I recommend all people charged with a misdemeanor to consult with an attorney, at a minimum), in many jurisdictions you will not need to come to court personally for most of the court proceedings. (An exception exists for domestic violence cases; the Legislature has recently determined that if you are charged with such a crime you must personally appear in court most of the time.) Your case starts with an arraignment, and then usually proceeds to a pretrial conference. There may be motions that can be brought, to have your case dismissed, have evidence suppressed in (i.e. kept out of) court, or other pretrial proceedings to somehow resolve the case without a trial. If a factual disputes exists, there can be a trial, and sometimes there are hearings about sentencing issues. If there have been mistakes made and you've been convicted, you can seek an appeal, or sometimes a writ before or after a judgment of conviction.

For felonies: Most jurisdictions will require your personal appearance in court, at least initially, if you are charged with a felony. Felonies are different than misdemeanors. Felony charges carry the possibility of prison time, restrict your rights as a citizen, and for these and other reasons are considered much more serious than misdemeanors. Felony cases can include all procedures for misdemeanors in addition to a preliminary hearing. At the preliminary hearing, the prosecution must put on a minimal, bare bones case against you, enough to convince a judge that there's a reason to bring you to trial.

Court hearings vary greatly according to the purpose of the hearing, and the length of the court's schedule. Some appearances involve discussions among the attorneys and judge (such as pretrial conferences and some sentencing hearings), some involve complicated legal issues (such as motion hearings and appeals), and some involve presentation of facts with evidence and live witness testimony (such as preliminary hearings and trials). Your attorney should make clear to you when you will be needed in court, and for approximately how long. If staying at work is one of your priorities, your attorney should minimize the times you are needed in court whenever possible.

Whatever happens in court, most of the work on clients' cases usually happens outside of court. Good preparation is the key to a good criminal defense attorney. Your defense attorney can review all the evidence in the hands of the prosecution, and work with you (and if necessary, with investigators and experts) to obtain additional evidence that can be used in your defense. A good defense attorney can also research the law to make sure that every possible advantage available to you is pursued. Often, an attorney will work with clients through the sentencing and probation stages, to make sure that once the client is being supervised by "the system", they still have some guidance and can still turn to someone for confidential advice.

Are there other sentencing alternatives for me besides jail?

I hate jail. My personal goal for all of my clients is to eliminate jail completely, or minimize the amount of time my clients must spend in jail or in prison.

Many lawyers promise you that they will explore other sentencing alternatives besides jail. That's an easy promise to make, because many options are available under the law to anyone who qualifies under specific guidelines set forth by the court, the Legislature, the probation department, or the jails.

When I work directly with a client, it's important that I outline specific goals for the client, considering he or she is faced with a life-changing, usually horrible set of choices. Let's face it, who wants to have to go to court to defend a criminal case? Given that we're not dealing with the best of all possible circumstances, it's very important for my client to help me understand where his or her priorities are, so I can put my efforts into accomplishing what's valuable to that particular client.

For instance, some people are most concerning with not having a conviction on their record. Other people don't mind a conviction, if they can make sure it's cleared or dismissed (sometimes erroneously called "expunged") in a couple of years when they'll be making a job change. Other people need to know that they won't miss too much work because of court, or that they'll be able to keep their job even if they have some sort of sentence to serve. Still others have childcare, education or licensing issues that are most important for them to protect. Others have a priority to see that they (finally) get their driver's license back, so they can stop getting little tickets that pile up and up and up....

Many of my clients find that they have drug and alcohol addiction or psychological issues to address. Others need professional help in controlling temper, range and anger. I can assist you in identifying these issues, and help guide you (if you want) to and work with professionals in the psychological, psychiatric, or recovery areas. Successful work by you on these personal issues may (1) enable the court to show you leniency where leniency may not have been easy to get otherwise, and (2) allow you to deal with the source of a recurring, debilitating problem in your life which you've never before had motivation to control.

Whatever your personal issues are, I can work with you to make sure you've identified them clearly, and then structure our work on the case around your own priorities. What's right for one person is absolutely the wrong approach for another. All alternatives that are right for you, will be discussed, explored, and fought for in court and out of court.

How can I manage to succeed on probation?

For many years, I helped clients who were facing probation violations. These kind of charges happen when clients are on probation, and must follow a certain number of rules, and they mess up. Sometimes the mistakes are honest mistakes, a forgotten date or a late payment of a fine. Many times, though, my clients were charged with violating their probation because the clients thought the probation officer would do something differently, or the clients did not really understand what was expected of them.

Probation violation charges are extremely serious, especially in felony cases. In all cases where probation is granted, the judge is in effect telling the client: "I could give you a stronger sentence, but I'm not. Instead, I'm going to give you a chance to show me you can get your act together and behave properly." Many clients, though, don't realize that a grant of probation is the opportunity to prove themselves. (This is understandable, as often a probationary sentence comes with a number of conditions, and the conditions can be heavy such as serious fines and jail time.) However, not understanding what probation really is often leads to clients reacting to probation in exactly the wrong way.

The key to surviving on probation is the proper attitude. Most probation violation charges are avoidable if you understand what you are doing from the beginning. To that end, I have developed these handy tips for my clients who are placed on probation. Pay most attention to Rule # 4, as it was designed to protect you and to develop your ability to prove you are compliant with probation if that is ever questioned in court at sometime in the future.


  1. Take all deadlines seriously.

  2. Understand that the Probation Officer is not your friend, even if he or she appears to be friendly toward you.
    • Accept the fact that the Probation Officer will consider you guilty, and will not be interested in your excuses or justifications for your conduct.
    • Expect the Probation Officer to distrust you, especially during the first year of your probation.
    • Remember that it is your responsibility to move your life in a positive direction, and that the Probation Officer will not do it for you.

  3. Remember that probation supervision is a substitute for jail or prison, and that your privacy will be diminished.
    • Accept the conditions of probation, even if it means a drastic alteration of your lifestyle.
    • Accept and comply with all orders for drug tests and counseling. Consider this a warning that you may be randomly drug tested or searched when you least expect it. Remember, it's always your choice as to whether or not you're going to pass your drug tests. Later on down the road, you may not like the consequences of your choice.

  4. Make it a habit to document your contact with the probation department, and to document all the things you do to comply with the terms of your probation.
    • Keep photocopies of all payments made for fines and restitution. Sometimes the county loses paperwork, so always be able to prove what you've paid.
    • Keep photocopies of all letters or documents given to the Probation Officer.
    • Sign in on the Probation Office's log sheet every single time you go to their office, even if you don't see your Probation Officer that day. Later on, you may need to prove you went there when you said you did.
    • Buy a small calendar or a memo pad, and jot down a note every time you telephone your Probation Officer, even if you only leave a message for him or her. Also, jot down the date and time of the calls. Again, later on you may need to prove you called when you said you did. If you make it a habit to write down your contact with your Probation Officer, you can use your notes or calendar to refresh your recollection later if you have to prove how many times you tried to reach your Probation Officer but can't recall the exact dates.
    • Never expect your Probation Officer to return your calls. Always leave messages for him or her when you can't reach him or her directly, but understand probation officers have a huge number of cases to monitor, and don't expect they will keep or respond to your messages. If your Probation Officer is expecting a call from you, call back repeatedly until you are able to reach him or her.

  5. Keep your spirits up! Remember, you were not given the largest sentence you could have been, you will be eligible for a record clearance when you successfully complete probation, and you can succeed on probation. It's up to you!


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