Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Commentary / ON THE DEFENSIVE: Wisconsin’s disastrous probation revocation system

ON THE DEFENSIVE: Wisconsin’s disastrous probation revocation system

Anthony Cotton is a partner at Kuchler & Cotton SC, Waukesha. He is the vice president of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and served two terms on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Anthony Cotton is a partner at Kuchler & Cotton SC, Waukesha. He is the vice president of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and previously served two terms on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

By state law, probation must be the first consideration at sentencing. Because of this, and because many everyday crimes do not warrant incarceration, thousands of defendants are placed on probation every year in Wisconsin. At sentencing, the judge will impose a series of conditions that the agent is charged with putting into effect. For a variety of reasons, however, the state’s probation system rarely fulfills the intentions behind it.

Rehabilitation should be the primary goal of probation. After all, the majority of defendants suffer from mental illnesses or substance abuse. But, because most probation agents lack a degree – or even advanced training — in social work, they are generally ill equipped to provide meaningful guidance or treatment to those who are suffering from these afflictions. More often than not, an agent will simply instruct a probationer to undergo an alcohol-and-drug assessment and to follow through with treatment. Probationers with serious troubles often lack the motivation or insight to obtain meaningful treatment and can be discharged from probation without any significant improvement.

The probation system is particularly broken when it comes to handling alleged violations of supervision. When a probationer is alleged to have violated a rule, the reflexive response by the Department of Corrections is to incarcerate the offender while the agent conducts an “investigation.” The investigation often involves nothing more than taking a statement from the probationer and obtaining police reports. During that time, the probationer is housed in the county jail. Those who have employment usually lose their jobs — given that it typically takes an agent more than a week to deal with alleged rule violations.

If an agent concludes that probation should be revoked, the affected person is almost always kept in jail until a final hearing. The agent is the only one authorized to make official decisions in these matters. Although the law permits out-of-custody revocations, those almost never happen.

Once an agent has directed a probationer to remain in custody until revocation, there is no meaningful oversight outside that provided by the Department of Corrections. The probationer, for instance, may not appeal the decision to an Administrative Law Judge. And, since revocation hearings usually do not occur for about 60 days, many probationers will waive their right to a hearing in order to expedite their release.

Compare this with the federal system. In that system, most probationers are allowed to remain out of jail until a final hearing. Not only does this save money, but it also ensures the probationer has time to change his behavior before a judge makes a decision about revoking supervision. Most defendants can be counted on to show up for revocation hearings, largely because failing to do so would guarantee a revocation.

The probation system needs serious reform. Because substance abuse is involved in most cases, probation departments should be equipped with in-house counselors who regularly run group and individual treatment sessions.

The default rule, moreover, should be to conduct outside-of-custody revocations. This will reduce jail overcrowding while also ensuring that probationers don’t waive their final revocation hearings for the sake of expediency.


  1. Our family knows this all too well…My brother has been refended for this very reason back to prison.

  2. Friend got arrested for a few charges while he was on probation and violated probation. Is it likely the case will be lifted ?

  3. What do you do if probation and parole is abusing their power and/or lying consistently resulting in hindering parolee from every type of success. Literally pushing him to leaning towards revoking himself because it would be easier. They have costed us so much money, made him quit 2 jobs, prevented him from going to school. Seeing his ill father. Now he’s finishing up a program they required him to complete to come home, he has been the model student and they’re sending him to a TLP anyways. What incentive is there to do what they want when they do nothing but lie.

  4. My son has lost several jobs and several job interviews due to P.O. holds. Now they’ve served him with revocation papers. Does any of his time in jail while on probation count towards the original revocated sentence?

  5. I am currently out of custody, “on the run”, because my PO is seeking revocation for a relapse, to which I admitted, and discharge from a sober living ATR because of said relapse. Since then a lot has happened but ultimately I stayed in the AA program and went to detox. I have been clean ever since, attended meetings, am working the steps with a sponsor, had my kids several days every week and every weekend, obtained employment with a well known company, completed a 6 hour a day 5 day a week treatment, and continue to participate in outpatient. I am so afraid to go back to jail and lose all this because I know my P.O. will catch up to me at my next court date for an open case. There needs to be something in place for someone like me who has rehabilitated themself to keep them from going to jail and losing that momentum. If you are clean and have a stable life there is no reason you should have to go to jail, especially if you have loads of documentation to prove these claims. The WDOC is so broken and I don’t think anyone is ready to fix it.

  6. We were working to transfer my sister to another state, where she had a job offer and housing available. We started this process on 6/18, paid for everything and in the meantime obtained temporary housing for the 45 day required period to process the transfer (as of job offers will last that long). The agent sat on it going back and forth with her boss until 8/26, when she finally submitted it to the new state after telling us repeatedly it had been submitted. This caused my sister to become homeless, her very first night in a shelter she got violated… had she switched states, had a home and support this would not have happened. The system is broken, agents are overworked, can’t do their jobs and intentionally set people up to fail… so sad.

  7. This is ridiculous. If you have an addiction problem ONLY. Then lets looks for alternatives. Use MN and WI circuit court and look up Asa Grimm. Tell me this guy isnt headed down a road of destruction. He is goong to kill someone because of this “ oh lets gove him a chance attitude”. Probation is a set of rules you agree to follow since you could not follow the law to begin with. Now these people continue to break the law and the probation set upon them due to their OWN actions and we are supposed to give them a break and feel sorry for them for PO holds. Asa Grimm’s history is text book. Getting worse and worse as he gets slaps on the hand as he plays the system and gets away with more and more without state prison time. The arguments in this article and by these commenters are ludicrous. You are letting dangerous people become more and more dangerous. In Asa’s case, they attempted just this year in 2019 to revoke him on pending charges. Which the judge denied. 3 months later – he plead guilty to a new felony. Which violates his probation. And what did he get? More probation! Now he is back in jail. Why? More probation violations. And the PO is going to try and hold him a few months. He has broke every probation he has been given!!! He belongs in jail. Stop feeling sorry for criminals. They are playing the sympathetic and politicians are on board to save money. Public safety be damned!!!

  8. My husband has been incarcerated since May and finally had his revocation hearing in October. He would have been off probation Dec. 2nd and was on the full time even though he completed all of his requirements within the first 6 months. He was on for 3 years, never breaking any laws and not doing anything wrong. I am pretty sure all of this is happening because Oconto County needs to pay for their new jail! He defended himself against the allegations from his probation agent and is now being revocated on something completely different without being able to defend himself. His probation agent took our statements and changed our words. I have copies of my statement and what she said “I said” an example – I said that my husband tried to get into the garage. She changed it to he forced his way into the garage. These are two different scenarios!!

  9. If a person is on parole and arrested on false allegations, then his po tries to revocate him, what case law can we use?

  10. Love most messed up thing about Wisconsin probation is that an “allegation” is grounds for revocation or sanctions so literally some person can call your po and make stuff up and your toast . Probation officers pretty much are god snd can do whatever they want . Yeah you can fight the revocation but will remain incarcerated until you have beat it . To the guy up there saying people play the system yeah that’s true and I’m sorry you grew up in a very privileged upbringing so you would never understand but some people are doomed from the beginning Wisconsin is a prison jail state we have the most jails/prisons per capita then any other state. It’s so crazy. For a place that claims Land of the free yet has thr highest incarceration rate in the world

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *