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Probation is deceptively difficult for some first-time offenders

Many individuals with no prior criminal record get arrested and charged with a crime because of a careless mistake or a temporary lapse in judgment. Perhaps they drove a friend home after having a few glasses of wine, not realizing that they were impaired.

For certain first-time offenders, courts in Wisconsin and around the country offer conviction alternatives such as deferred prosecution and probation. These are attractive because if the defendant completes the terms of probation, they may end up with a clean criminal record. Unfortunately, what initially seems like an attractive offer can end up being far worse for the defendant than a conviction would have been.

The New York Times recently profiled a Baltimore woman whose DUI arrest fit the description provided above. After agreeing to 18 months of probation, the woman faced a hellish series of events that landed her in trouble again and again. She had committed no new crimes, but her "violations" (all fairly reasonable and explainable) resulted in numerous court appearances and thousands of dollars in fines and fees. She even spent more than a month in jail.

(To better understand the full story, please feel free to read the New York Times article).

Based on the reporter's account, this woman faced a number of problems outside of her control, including an activist judge who seems preoccupied with fixing defendants' "bad attitudes" and making sure they learn how to "follow the rules." But sadly, many aspects of the woman's probation experience are common, especially among minority and low-income defendants.

Alleged probation violations often require mid-day court appearances, fines and fees. Although the financial costs are difficult to afford for someone with a low-wage job, the larger problem is missing work for court appearances. Defendants often lose their jobs, which can set other problems in motion (like being evicted, for instance).

If you have been charged with a crime, please understand that any deal offered to you by prosecutors may prove to be less advantageous than it first seems. You should confer with your criminal defense attorney and weigh your options carefully before deciding on a course of action.

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