Teaching Your Clients to Succeed on Probation

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Wednesday, February 27th, 2019
Teaching Your Clients to Succeed on Probation

This may be the shortest and least academic article I’ve ever written, but the insights, for what they may be worth, came out of necessity. Like most of us, a healthy percentage of my clients were failing on deferred adjudication or community supervision, and while there was a healthy trickle of revenue from revocation and adjudication hearings, my goal was to help my clients succeed. So more than a decade ago, I began giving my clients a brief lecture before they began a probationary sentence. Since then, the percentage failing on probation has fallen to only one or two a year—if that. So, it seems this little lecture serves some purpose in aiding clients to get through, what is to them, an unfamiliar process without problems. And because for more than a decade it’s been working for me, it seemed that some of the other criminal defense lawyers in Texas might want to start giving their version of the same speech to their clients. And that speech goes something like this:

Every probation officer starts out with three piles in front of them. The first one, the middle pile, is mainly new pro­bationers, or people that they haven’t learned much about yet. These are people that could go either way: They may succeed, they may fail. Probation officers are going to spend a lot of their time watching these people, to see if they are screwing up. Once they get to know the probationer better, they’ll know which way these people are going, but some probationers will stay in this pile all the way through: not doing poorly enough to fail, but not doing well enough to trust.

The second pile is the screw-ups. These are the people who, though they aren’t doing anything major, are late to probation meetings, don’t have their documentation in order, reschedule more than most, have a bad attitude, don’t get their community service done on time, are late with their fees and fines, or think they are going to game the system. They often view the PO as their enemy, or at least adversary—and if they are right, it’s because they’ve treated the PO as their enemy. The probation officers know these people are getting filed on (either to revoke or adjudicate) sooner or later. They are waiting to see if they get re-arrested before their probation is over, making the probation officer’s job easy. If the probationer doesn’t pick up a new case, the PO is likely to file on him or her a few months before their probation is over—letting them serve almost their entire probation, then get revoked or adjudicated based on all the little violations they’ve piled up. At the very least, they’ll probably get extended. They basically get punished twice. These people are doomed; they just don’t know it yet.

The third pile is what I like to call the Golden Boys. These people are always early for their appointments, have their documentation in order, their paperwork is legible, they complete their community service ahead of schedule, have a good attitude, are doing well at work, and are a pleasure to see every month. These are the success stories the probation officer will use to get a promotion. The probation officer trusts these people to take care of business.

I’ve seen probation officers help these people if they get in trouble on probation, making sure they finish on time or early. They’ll give them a second shot at a failed drug test. I’ve seen them file motions for early termination, on their own, and allow them to come in once every three months and appear by mail the other two. Probation officers bend over backwards to help their Golden Boys, because they’ve shown the probation officers that they have what it takes to succeed, that they respect the system, the probation officers, and the law enough to do what they are required to without complaint.

Your job, on probation, is to get into that Golden Boy pile as quickly as possible. Always be early. Make sure you’ve got your paystubs, or proof of looking for a job, in order before you go. Smile. Look the probation officer in the eyes and be polite and respectful. Get your community service done early. Pay off your fines and fees early. Say “thank you” and “you’re welcome,” and mean it.

Treat the probation officer as the most important person in your life. He or she sees dozens of people, each day, trying to manipulate and BS him/her. Be the one per­son who doesn’t do that. The easier and more pleasant you make his/her job, the easier and more pleasant your time on probation will be.

Moreover, your chance of getting early termination is almost nonexistent unless the probation officer is on your side. The easier you’ve made his/her life, the more likely he/she is to be on your side. Do what you need to do before the probation officer has a chance to remind you, and every day of your time on probation will go easier on you.

This concept is easily modified to meet your client’s understanding and needs. Giving your client an insight into what the probation officer’s perspective is, and how to work with instead of against the probation officer, helps avoid friction right at the beginning, where it’s likely to become ingrained. If clients start off by understanding that the probation officer is just another human being—with all the vanity, laziness, and foibles that entails—and commit themselves to making the probation officer’s life just a little easier, they’ll sail through probation far more painlessly than if they view the PO as someone committed to tripping them up.

I hope that this works for your clients as well as it has for mine. Just recently, I represented a young man who was represented by a different lawyer at his plea, and who was facing a Motion to Adjudicate due to more than a dozen technical failures—late appointments, late payments, not taking courses on time, not completing community service on time, etc. As I was giving him this little lecture, he kept saying, “Nobody ever explained it to me before.” Now, he’s doing great on probation, and is no longer at odds with his PO. Setting your client up to succeed on probation takes only a few minutes, and just may keep them out of prison. Why wouldn’t you want to do that? Good luck!