Probation Forms and the Deaf Offender: A Complex Matter With a Simple Solution

By Jean F. Andrews

Re-Offender (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Probation is a court order that allows a person convicted of a crime to remain out of jail. An individual on probation must follow certain court-ordered procedures and keep from getting into trouble with the law. Probation violations both occur when an individual either breaks the rules or fails to keep the terms of their probation, including getting arrested for another offense. Probation violations have significant consequences and penalties. When a probation violation occurs, it may result in the person returning back to jail.
For obvious reasons, offenders must understand the conditions of their probation and work with their probation officer to make sure these conditions are met on time. For instance, a court may mandate drug treatment or an anger management class, depending on the charges. For deaf offenders who are illiterate, understanding the conditions of probation, particularly reading the probation forms can be a nightmare. More often than not, deaf offenders are not provided with qualified interpreters consistently throughout their probation meetings. Further, the deaf offender may not be able to read the probation forms he or she must sign detailing the conditions for probation because they read below the 3rd grade reading level. And when the deaf offender takes the forms home, she or he cannot refer to them as a memory aid because forms are written at the 9th grade reading level or above as I found with one readability analysis of one probation form. That means you would need at least a high school reading level to comprehend this form.

Look. Even on a demo form, the perp is a Black male No comedy like reality. -- BitcoDavid. Photo courtesy of Quick-Court
Look. Even on a demo form, the perp is a Black male No comedy like reality. — BitcoDavid. Photo courtesy of Quick-Court.

To illustrate the linguistic complexity of probation forms, here is a sample sentence with a feared consequence.
Failure to answer all questions honestly or failing to fill out the forms by due date could result in a warrant for your arrest.
How can a deaf offender fill out the form honestly? How can he fill it out at all if he does not understand what he is reading? Such scenarios as this one are common. In one case, a deaf offender on probation was not aware of the fee schedule change as his probation officer failed to explain it to him and the deaf individual could not read the form he was given with the fee schedule changes listed on it. In another instance, an offender on probation was required to go to Anger Management classes but she could not get an interpreter nor could she read the class textbook which was written at the 9th grade reading level.


Probation forms are filled with difficult vocabulary such as termination, requirements, receipt, written confirmation, brackets, regarding, issued, self-addressed stamped envelope, cashiers check, that a deaf offender with a low reading level would have difficulty understanding. The probation forms are also filled with complex sentence structures, if-then cause and effect clauses, time clauses, sequencing, structures which low level reading deaf offenders stumble through. As such, both the linguistic complexity and the content of the forms with its sequencing of events and ideas on what the deaf offender should do, should not do, and the when and where the forms must be filled out and what conditions need to be made are complex and confusing for the deaf offender. Hearing offenders who are illiterate can simply ask a family member or the probation officer to explain the rules because they have a shared spoken language. However, deaf offenders are “up the creek without a paddle,” when such probation forms are placed in front of them and they are not provided with a qualified sign language interpreter. They are left to flounder and fail and oftentimes they end up back in jail because they did not understand the conditions for probation.

The solution is simple: Provide qualified sign language interpreters in all interactions with signing deaf offenders and probation officers.

Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist and Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University.

[Editor’s note: Jean has touched on many important issues with this piece, but another probation / parole issue that needs mentioning is the use of urinalysis for drug testing. These tests are known to be wildly inaccurate – all the more so when administered by a non-professional such as a probation officer or cop. Something as mundane as a poppy-seed bagel can be enough to get an offender violated and sent back to jail. People should know that they have the right to refuse a urinalysis test, and instead to opt for a blood test administered by a medical professional. –BitcoDavid]


2 thoughts on “Probation Forms and the Deaf Offender: A Complex Matter With a Simple Solution

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