Prisons and fines are only two of the penalties that are available to judges in the Florida criminal justice system. Thousands of convicted offenders are placed on probation in Florida, and scores of inmates have been released from Florida prisons to serve the remainder of their sentences as parolees.

If you’re accused of any crime in the state of Florida, you should know exactly what criminal penalties you may face, and you should understand the differences between probation and parole. An experienced Stuart criminal defense attorney can help.

Because of their similarities, the differences between probation and parole can be confusing. Both penalties are alternatives to jail or prison, and both involve living in the community, adhering to a rigid list of terms and conditions, and meeting with a probation officer or a parole officer on a routine basis. Probation and parole may look like the same thing, but they are distinctly different penalties arrived at in substantially different ways.

WHAT DOES PROBATION IN FLORIDA ENTAIL?

In most criminal cases in the state of Florida, convicted defendants may be sentenced to probation – or have their jail or prison sentence “probated” – as an alternative to incarceration. In 2015, probation officers in Florida were supervising more than 139,000 probationers. Offenders are not required to serve time behind bars in order to qualify for probation. Probationers in Florida may or may not be required to wear electronic GPS monitors – ankle bracelets – as a condition of probation.

Typically, the terms and conditions of probation include avoiding alcohol and drugs, submitting to unscheduled and unannounced alcohol and drug testing, avoiding criminal acquaintances, obtaining and keeping employment, and checking in regularly with a probation officer. Any failure to adhere to the terms and conditions of probation can mean a revocation of the probation and a term of incarceration for the full length of the original sentence.

Probation in Florida focuses on the offender’s personal accountability and responsibility while providing a realistic alternative to jail and prison. Probationers in Florida must comply with the conditions of probation and avoid any more legal trouble.

They must meet with a probation officer, adhere to that officer’s directions, seek permission to travel outside of the jurisdiction, and notify the probation officer regarding any changes in their employment or residence.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN PROBATION IS VIOLATED?

What happens if someone on probation in Florida fails a random drug test or violates another term or condition of the probation? When a probationer violates a condition of probation, he or she may be charged with a violation of probation (or “VOP”). If a parole officer believes that a probationer has violated probation, the officer submits an Affidavit of Violation to the court, which is a statement that explains the alleged violation.

The court will review the Affidavit of Violation and decide whether or not reasonable grounds exist to take action against the accused probationer. If the court chooses to act, it will issue a warrant for the probationer’s arrest. He or she will be arraigned on the VOP charge and a hearing will be scheduled. In these cases, an experienced Florida defense lawyer may be able to help a probationer accused of VOP avoid the harshest possible consequence – a revocation of the probation resulting in a jail or prison term.

HOW DOES PAROLE WORK IN FLORIDA? WHY IS IT SO RARE IN THIS STATE?

Parole differs from probation in several ways in this state. Parole, precisely speaking, is not a comprehensive alternative to incarceration because to qualify for parole, a convicted offender must serve at least a part of his or her sentence in jail or prison.

A convicted offender can only be approved for parole if he or she exhibits good behavior while behind bars and serves a certain period of time there. An inmate who is imprisoned for a criminal conviction in Florida must serve at least 85 percent of his or her sentence before qualifying for consideration for parole.

Parole is extremely rare in Florida, and for all practical purposes, it was abolished in this state by the Florida Legislature in 1983. Currently in Florida, only inmates who committed crimes before October 1, 1983 are eligible for parole, with several exceptions spelled out below.

As of 2016, approximately 4,500 inmates are still eligible for parole in Florida, and a number of convicted offenders are still serving time on parole.

Parole may also be granted, in rare cases, to inmates who qualify under one of the following exceptions specified by Florida law:

  • an inmate convicted of a first-degree murder, a felony murder, or the crime of making, possessing, throwing, projecting, placing, or discharging a destructive device (or attempting to) before May 25, 1994
  • inmates convicted of all other capital felonies committed before October 1, 1995
  • an inmate convicted of a continuing criminal enterprise before June 17, 1993
  • an inmate convicted of the murder of a law enforcement officer (or other specified officers) committed before January 1, 1990
  • an inmate convicted of murdering a judge or a justice before October 1, 1990
  • inmates sentenced “outside the guidelines” for felonies committed before July 1, 1984
  • any inmate convicted as a habitual felony offender before October 1, 1988

Although parole has been effectively abolished in Florida (with the exceptions listed above), the Florida Legislature in 1992 established “Conditional Medical Release.” This allows the supervised release of inmates deemed by the Florida Department of Corrections to be “terminally ill” or “permanently incapacitated” and who do not pose a danger to the public. The supervised release may be revoked and the offender may be sent back to prison if a willful, significant violation takes place.

Of course, those who are accused of committing crimes are innocent in Florida until and unless they are proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and while probation may be better than prison, if you’re charged with a crime and you’re innocent, you should plead not guilty, and you should ask a jury to acquit you.

An experienced Stuart criminal defense attorney may find flaws in a prosecutor’s case and may be able to have the charge reduced or tossed out of court entirely. Every charge and every defendant is different, so anyone charged with a crime in Florida will require a good defense lawyer’s personalized legal advice.