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When a person commits a felony, he is brought to court to answer for his crime. However, upon a finding of guilty, the criminal does not necessarily go to prison to serve his sentence. The American justice system banks heavily on alternative forms of retribution. These cannot be strictly categorized as a form of punishment because they are not aimed at making the criminal pay for his wrongdoing, but are actually forms of preparing the felon for re-entry into society as a fully functional and reformed individual.
In the state of Florida, the executive branch of the government is charged with managing the statewide adult probation and parole supervisions services, with the Office of Community Corrections as the lead agency. There is also a separate Florida Parole Commission that directly oversees the surveillance and monitoring programs that are needed to periodically check on the lifestyle and activities of parolees on release.
Simply put, probation is a kind of 'punishment' in which the offender does productive community work and abides by certain court-issued conditions in exchange for not serving time in jail. It can also be imposed in addition as an accessory penalty to a prison sentence.
The decision to commit a felon to a state or federal correctional facility or to let him out on probationary status rests on the court. It is the judge who determines the kind of punishment that the felon receives, even if there has been a jury trial convicting the said individual. The turning point for imposing the proper punishment is usually the nature of the offense committed. The judge also considers aggravating and mitigating factors to determine whether the offender deserves incarceration as punishment or probation and community services.
Probation officers help the judge decide whether or not to give a prison sentence to the offender. Their assistance comes in the form of investigating the criminal record and personal background of the offender, which is usually done during the pretrial period. Upon conviction, the officer's findings are compiled into a presentence investigation report, a relevant factor upon which a judge bases the nature of the punishment and the length of sentence, if one is warranted under the circumstances.
Depending on the jurisdiction, the PSI can either be used to highlight the crime or the criminal. In definite-sentence jurisdictions, statute books prescribe similar sentences for similar offenses. The nature of the crime, the offender's participation therein, and the existence of aggravating or mitigating circumstances, if any, are use to determine the feasibility of placing the offender under a probation program. Meanwhile, indeterminate-sentence jurisdictions focus on the criminal's personal history as a gauge for his fitness to abide to probation rules. Details such as his personal circumstances (employment, living arrangements, family) coupled with the seriousness of the crime and his risks for recidivism are the primary considerations of the PSI prepared by the probation officer.
An offender who wants to petition the court for an alternative sentence to serving jail time must first of all prove his ability to abide by the rules and follow the conditions of supervision that may be imposed on him. Once the court decides to suspend the offender's sentence in favour of probation, the court must also decide how to implement the probation program. This comes in the form of choosing the most apt community service program available in his area.
Probation is a good alternative for law enforcement agencies and legal professionals to work together on reforming the felon instead of putting him behind bars. Statistics from the Florida Office of Community Corrections show that the number of felons who have been incarcerated and given probation are almost equal (39.0 percent for the former and 38.9 percent for the latter). From this data it can be seen that probation is not so much an exotic alternative but rather a regular procedure in the justice system.
An offender who is given probation instead of service of sentence under detention must abide by specific conditions of supervision. Generally, the conditions are lifted from the Florida statute but the releasing authority (either the court or the Parole Commission) may also add more provisions based on the type of crime committed. For example, drug offenders can be subjected to a condition which compels them to submit to a government-administered drug test every two months.
Probation is not a sham supervision that is confined on paper, because probation officers do regularly check on the status of the offender, and the offender is also obliged to report to the probation officer assigned to him, either at his residence or place of employment. Any violation of these conditions for supervision gives the court the right to revoke the probation and compel the offender to serve the punishment which was suspended upon his submission to the probation program. The probation officer also has the power to arrest the offender under his charge if he is found to have committed a new felony.
While out on probation, the offender is usually required to do community service hours as well as to pay the costs of the supervision placed upon him and to do restitution in the form of fees paid to the victims of his crime. Some of the most common public service works imposed on the offender include participating in community beautification projects, construction assistance, and doing volunteer work for public agencies such as the Red Cross. The offender remains anonymous as a criminal on probation because he is not required to wear prison garb while doing service hours.
However, the offender is not compelled to stay in his place of residence and may even move to another state for valid reasons (for example, he has been given a new job or wants to be closer to his family). The procedure for transferring authority of supervision is also handled by the probation officer in order to make the transition from one probation officer to another simpler.
People think that parole and probation are similar terms, but this is not true. The Florida Parole Commission defines parole as the suspension of sentence of an offender after he has been convicted and committed to the proper correctional facility. Prior to the expiry of the inmate's sentence, his sentence is suspended the unexpired term is served under a period of supervision in society. Like probation, there are mandatory conditions imposed by statute and by the Commission and the offender is bound to comply with these conditions. Upon proof of violating any of the conditions placed upon the parolee, the Commission may order the offender to be recommitted to the proper institution and either serve the remaining portion of his sentence of file another charge against him, if necessary.
It must be stressed, however, that the grant of a parole is completely discretionary upon the Parole Commission and is not a right of the inmate. It is an act of clemency and recognition of the inmate's capacity for full reformation and ability to function as a law-abiding citizen even prior to the expiry of his prison term. The decision to grant parole to an inmate is based on risk assessment and the Commission's decision-making experience in particular cases in the past, but the inmate's good track record in the institution is also important for a parole eligible inmate to finally be granted conditional release.
The Parole Commission was created by virtue of the Florida Statutes and is funded via a general revenue allocation given by the Legislature. It has five main functions: (1) determine the inmate's eligibility for parole, (2) create the conditions for supervision, (3) decide on allegations of violation of these conditions, (4) conduct clemency investigations and (5) help victims of crime. Once on parole, an inmate is also made to report regularly to a parole officer to monitor his continuous good behaviour even outside the correctional facility. The parolee is released from the program after successful compliance with all the requisite conditions for the whole time of his release.
The law provides for the appointment of three parole commissioners who each serve a six-year term. There are currently one chairman, one vice chairman, and one commissioner in the Florida Parole Commission. Frederick Dunphy, the chairman, was first appointed by the governor in December 1988 to fill in the unexpired term of a retiring commissioner and has since been given two more six-year terms in June 2002 and October 2008. Monica David, commissioner, was first appointed in 2000 and was renewed in service in 2006. The third member of the commission, Tena Pate, serves as the vice chairman and was first appointed in 2003 to serve in the vacant position in the commission but was given a full six-year office the following year.