Sentencing a first-time offender to probation is a sticky subject. Giving probation for a non-violent misdemeanor or felony often feels ineffective and can be a slap in the face to law enforcement. On the other hand, exposing a basically decent person who made a stupid mistake to a year in prison could lead him down the path to a life of crime. In 1966, a few states began a program called "Shock Probation" where first-time offenders who are sentenced to prison can file an appeal to their judge. If accepted, the offender will be released on probation after spending 30, 60 or 90 days in prison. Thus, the offender can experience the trauma of incarceration without sufferring its long-term ill effects.
In 1965, shock probation began in Ohio and involved 4,014 prisoners, who served only the initial 60 to 90 days of their original sentence. The recidivism (committing a crime after release) rate among these prisoners was only 9% - far lower than the average national recidivism rate of 65%. Encouraged by these improved recidivism rates (as well as the cost savings from keeping fewer inmates), Kentucky and Indiana began their own shock probation programs in the late 1960's. Today, Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Iowa and Maine have also adopted statutes specifically allowing shock probation.
"Shock Probation" vs. "Split Sentencing"
In criminal law, split sentencing refers to any state law that allows a judge to divide a convict's sentence between incarceration and probation/parole. For example, a prison sentence that includes a set date for parole eligibility is a split sentence because it allows for the possibility of the convict replacing part of his incarceration with parole. Most states allow for this type of split sentencing. While shock probation is a form of split sentencing, what sets it apart is the brevity of incarceration compared to probation. Also, shock probation includes a required pre-release program as well as an additional appearance before the judge.
The Petitioning Process
Applying for shock probation begins after you have been convicted of a crime and a prison sentence has been handed down by the judge. To be eligible for the program, you must be a first-time offenders and your crime must be either a non-violent felony or a misdemeanor. It helps if the misdemeanor is non-violent, unless there are extenuating circumstances. Sex offenders are not eligible.
There are a number of ways one can receive shock probation: the jury can recommend it, the judge can decide it at sentencing or a prisoner (usually through power of attorney) can enter petition to the sentencing judge.
If accepted, the prisoner will immediately enter a "bootcamp-style" pre-release program, usually involving strenuous physical exercise, work/vocational assignments, classes in decision making, education and drug rehabilitation. After successfully completing this program (30-90 days long), the prisoner reappears before the judge to be sentenced to probation. During this hearing, the terms of probation are set and the prisoner is released into the community.
Once released under shock probation, you remain under probation for a period determined by the judge. Usually, the period is longer than the prison sentence itself would have been. Like parole, convicts out on shock probation are required to stay crime-free and follow any specific additional terms of the probation.
If you successfully pass the probation period, the conviction still goes on your permanent record but at least you managed to escape several months behind bars. If you violate your probation, expect to restart your prison sentence where you left off, along with additional months added to your total sentence and no chance of early release.
The original 1966 shock probation recidivism rate of 9% generally holds true today, suggesting that this program successfully "shocks" most first-time offenders away from crime for good. However, this effectiveness owes largely to the discerning eyes of the judges who grant shock probation. On average, nine of every ten applications are rejected, meaning that those accepted truly are "exceptional cases." Also, because each application is reviewed by the judge who oversaw the original trial, the final decision is a truly informed one.