Probation Denied in Deaths of Three People in ‘Sweat Lodge’ Incident

In mid-November, James Arthur Ray, a self-help author and speaker, was sentenced to two years in prison for the deaths of three participants in a “sweat lodge” event he was sponsoring. The participants were attempting to recreate the supposed positive effects experienced by some Native American peoples who endure the high heat through mental and physical toughness. Two died at the time while a third died about a week later from the extreme heat, and their families called for the judge to sentence Ray to the maximum 9-year sentence for negligent homicide.

Ray’s attorneys, on the other hand, had argued that this was just the sort of case in which probation was more appropriate than prison time. They pointed out that many people felt Ray had a positive effect on their life, and he posed no further threat to society. Furthermore, he had no prior criminal record and hadn’t intended for anyone to be injured at the sweat lodge event.

In the end, the judge chose a sentence somewhere between the two extremes. But the case illustrates that even a criminal charge involving the death of three people can sometimes lead to probation rather than jail or prison time.

That’s not to say probation is necessarily “easy.” There are a great many restrictions on a person’s freedom and legal rights when he or she is on probation. Someone on probation (sometimes called a probationer) is assigned a probation officer, who both monitors and assists the offender. The probation officer can conduct searches of the probationer’s home or car (without a search warrant), and will check up to ensure the person is either attending school or working. If the probationer commits a crime or otherwise violates the terms of the probation, the officer can bring the person back before the court for likely jail or prison time.

People on probation are also required to get approval from the court before moving or changing jobs. Those convicted of drug offenses must undergo regular drug tests and attend drug rehab. Furthermore, probationers must pay a $65 monthly fee, which covers the costs of the various probation programs, and in many cases must also pay restitution or other fines as a condition of their probation.

Arizona’s probation laws are designed to help the person get back on the right track, and to that end, the state offers some training programs in both cognitive (thinking) skills and general life skills. In some cases, probationers may be required to pay for these services, though help with payments is available for those with financial hardship. All probation in the state is handled at the county level, so services may vary from location to location.