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Probation — Part I

 The term probation comes to us from the Latin verb “probare,” which means to prove or to test.

It has several definitions and for court proceedings means a criminal sentence imposed by a judge on a convicted felon or misdemeanant which provides for a term of supervision as an alternative to jail or prison.

Its origins can be traced back to English criminal law in the Middle Ages when harsh penalties were imposed on both adults and children for crimes which weren’t necessarily serious.

For example “poaching,” which was hunting on royal lands, was a death penalty offense.

The will of the English people changed the justice system to allow for less severe punishments and the initiation of the practice of “binding over for good behavior,” a form of temporary release, which allowed defendants to prove over time that they deserved a lesser sentence.

In the United States, the concept of probation was first introduced in the Boston, Massachusetts Police Court by a man named John Augustus who is considered to be the “Father of Probation.” He believed in abstinence and that alcohol abusers could be rehabilitated. In 1841, he bailed out a “common drunkard” to prove the point.

When the defendant appeared back in court for his sentencing, his appearance had drastically changed for the better in both appearance and demeanor as a result of Mr. Augustus’ counseling efforts.

After that, Mr. Augustus began an 18-year career as a volunteer probation officer for some 1,946 people charged with various crimes. Reportedly, only 10 of these defendants failed to comply with his and the court’s conditions.

Because of his work, in 1859 Massachusetts became the first state to enact a probation statute. This led to a national movement and now every state and the federal system have probation laws.

Michigan has had a statute since 1913.

The statute allows probation for misdemeanors and felonies with the exception of murder, armed robbery and some other serious offenses.

For felony cases, the Michigan Department of Corrections is the supervisor and the probation term can be for up to five years. For misdemeanor cases, the district court’s probation department assumes that role with a term of up to two years.

Next week — Part II — Types of Probation.

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