Probation and supervised release are opportunities for anyone caught up in the criminal justice system to complete the journey and get back to full control of their life. Probation allows the sentencing court to see that a person is ready to live according to the law and stay out of further legal trouble. 

The number one goal of anyone on probation is to successfully complete the program and get off probation or supervised release.

Terminology: Probation, Supervised Release, Parole

Probation, supervised release, and parole all relate to forms of conditional release or freedom in the federal system.

Probation is a term of supervision in place of jail or prison, often reserved for first-time offenders convicted of less serious, non-violent crimes. 

Supervised release, by contrast, is a period of supervision that follows time in prison and applies to people convicted of a felony or grade-A misdemeanor. 

After time in prison, supervised release is a preliminary period of freedom that the court imposed at sentencing. It is not a privilege granted by the Bureau of Prisons after incarceration.

On federal supervised release, a probation officer supervises the person. If they violate the conditions of supervised release, they can be sent back to prison and potentially remain there until the end of the supervised release term.

Probation A form of conditional freedom that federal judges may impose in place of time in jail or prison.
Parole A form of early release from federal prison after people have served a portion of their sentence in prison. Based on their adjustment and conduct in prison, parole boards determine whether to grant parole. The federal government now uses supervised release instead of parole.
Supervised release A term of supervision that follows time in prison. A period of oversight that a judge imposes at sentencing and the defendant serves after prison.

Click here for more details on the rules of federal supervised release and how to achieve early termination: 

Being on probation or supervised release is definitely limiting, though much less limiting than being in jail or prison. Significantly, during probation or supervised release, a federal judge can still sentence a person to jail or prison without having to conduct a jury trial. The defendant no longer has the constitutional right to a trial by jury before being sent back to prison. Moreover, probation officers can search people’s homes, cars, and other property at any time. 

Pro-Tip: State systems generally have probation as a sentencing option, as a form of post-incarceration supervision, and some also use parole. It depends on the state. In-state cases, the state does not have to prove that a person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to send them back to jail or prison. The only thing the state has to prove to send a person on probation to prison is that they violated their probation more likely than not.

People often ask about the best practices for success on probation.

Best practices for completing probation and supervised release include these 10 tips:

  • Take it seriously.
  • Read probation order.
  • Follow the rules.
  • Keep a calendar.
  • Ask questions.
  • Record community service.
  • Avoid criminal conduct.
  • Keep a good attitude.
  • Be careful about drugs.
  • Ease the probation officer’s job.


  1. Take it seriously. For people who follow the rules of their supervision as meticulously as they followed prison rules, their probation officers can put them on non-reporting status. Having to report to the probation officer then becomes less and less frequent. Under less intrusive supervision, the chances of getting in trouble may reduce. Eventually, a person can ask the judge to terminate their supervised release early.
  2. Read probation order. People need to make sure to know the standard conditions of release as well as the specific ones for their case. Avoid unpleasant surprises. Prioritize knowing the rules. Ignorance of the rules serves no purpose.
  3. Follow the rules. Comply with all the conditions. Report as instructed. Avoid alcohol and non-prescribed drugs. Report all prescribed drugs to the probation officer. Pay fines and restitution as soon as possible. Do not travel out of state without permission. Time on supervised release is temporary, so stick to the rules. Something as simple as failing to report a change of address, for example, can cause significant trouble. The court must know a person’s address at all times during probation and supervised release. Changing jobs requires notice to the probation officer as well. Another rule people often break unwittingly is undertaking new financial commitments without permission from their probation officer. Many white-collar defendants, for example, have a condition of release that bars them from applying for credit cards at all, let alone without permission. Follow the rules.
  4. Keep a calendar, plan it out. Making a timeline for all the conditions of probation and when they are to be completed can be very useful. Many people report that a wall calendar system helps keep them focused and on track. It also reinforces the notion that the situation is not permanent. This can also help people get more organized and keep track of dates, receipts, etc. Probation officers want to see their people employed. When unemployed and looking for a job, people need to keep a list of the places where they have applied and a copy of the applications. Their calendar is a contemporaneous record of their job search.
  5. Clarify and ask questions. Successful people check with their lawyer, probation officer, or another experienced person they trust when they have doubts about anything that could matter. Double-check. Before doing anything, ask. Can a person on alcohol restriction work at a restaurant that serves liquor? Don’t take a chance, don’t assume. Some probation situations can be up to the discretion of the probation officer. Assume that the probation officer wants to see people succeed, and probation officers should therefore be willing to answer questions and clarify a person’s obligations on probation. Remember that pleading ignorance when something goes wrong will not work.
  6. Carefully record community service. People with community service hours in their judgment need to complete and document these hours. Documentation from thenon-profit charity may also be needed. Making a personal record and obtaining a signed letter on the non-profit organization’s letterhead are good practices. Even when a person’s judgment does not require community service, people who volunteer should keep records as they could be helpful to an application for early termination of supervised release.
  7. Avoid criminal exposure. While this may sound redundant to tips #1 and #3 (“take it seriously” and “follow the rules”), it deserves special mention. Do not take the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, where other people may be doing something illegal. Some people on probation can get tripped up over business issues or taxes. Consult lawyers, accountants, or other experts to minimize exposure to criminal allegations wherever possible. One of the biggest things that gets people in trouble is catching a new charge. It goes totally against the notion of rehabilitation narrative that the court wants to see. Committing a new crime while on probation upsets everybody, most notably the judge. Avoid trouble.
  8. Maintain perspective and a good attitude. Probation and supervised release are just for a season. Adopting the best possible attitude under the circumstances can help people get through and even thrive. Avoid arguing with the probation officer, counselors, co-workers, etc., which rarely advances the ball. Be polite and respectful. Keeping perspective focused on medium and long-term goals is vital. While people rightfully complain about being asked to jump through hoops for no apparent reason, being on probation and supervised release is better than the alternative time in prison.
  9. Be extra careful with drugs. This means more than avoiding taking illegal drugs because just being around drugs can also be a problem. See #7. Moreover, just being around drugs—even marijuana—can result in huge problems. The fact that marijuana is now legal in some states changes nothing for a person on federal probation. Even trace amounts of drugs in a person’s system could have serious consequences. Being at a party where drugs are present could land someone in jail even if they were unaware.
  10. Ease the Probation Officer’s job. Probation officers appreciate people who actively cooperate with them. Communicate proactively. As people achieve different milestones or complete the various requirements, they should let probation know. Treat probation officers and all court and probation personnel with respect, humility, and honesty. Probation officers get lied to and deceived; they often already know the answers to the questions they ask. Establishing a reputation for proactive communication and honesty will go a long way toward building a mutually beneficial relationship. Keep up with your responsibilities and keep your word. Follow through. Keep curfew. Be on time. When experiencing financial difficulties, it is ok to let them know. More than anything, probation officers would prefer not to get caught off guard. Anything people can do to make things easier for the probation officer will benefit them.

Check out this video on how to succeed on federal probation: White Collar 101: How to Succeed on Federal Probation

What Happens When Probation Ends?

A probation violation can cause the court to extend a person’s term of probation or supervised release. But otherwise, the probation or supervised release term will come to an end, and once it is over, the person is no longer required to comply with the terms of probation. The probation officer can no longer oversee the person’s activities or subject them to urine analysis or breathalyzer. 

The end of a term of federal probation is covered by 18 U.S.C. 3564(c) and 3583(e)(1), which authorize the court, after consideration of certain factors, to “terminate a term of probation in misdemeanor cases at any time. In Felony cases, after consideration of certain factors and after the expiration of one year of supervision, the court can terminate the term of probation or supervised release if such action is warranted by an offender’s conduct and is in the interest of justice.”

As to early termination of probation or supervised release, the issue of outstanding fines and restitution matters. Conventional wisdom is that people cannot be let off probation early if they still owe money. The court will likely convert outstanding restitution to a civil judgment when the period of probation or supervised release ends. We recommend discussing these issues with legal counsel and sentencing mitigation experts. 

Click below for more details on early termination:

Early Termination of Supervised Release


What does success on probation or supervised release look like? 

Ideally, people would go through their term without any major incidents, no violations, and early termination of supervision. Many people successfully complete their term on probation and supervised release every day, but it will not happen by accident. It is vital to put as much focus on completing this phase of the journey as necessary. Paying close attention to the terms and conditions of their probation order and rules of release is crucial. 

With focus and a plan, people can even achieve early termination. The team at Prison Professors helps clients create and follow a game plan to complete their probation or supervised release and apply for early termination when possible.

author avatar
Justin Paperny