A deferred adjudication is most easily explained when discussing a very serious offense, such as a first degree felony.
The full range of punishment for a first-degree felony is confinement in prison for anywhere from five years to 99 years or life, and up to a $10,000 fine. When someone is placed on a deferred adjudication probation, he faces the full range of punishment if his probation is revoked. This is one of the main differences between a deferred adjudication probation and a regular probation. A person placed on probation for 10 years on a first-degree felony, if revoked, could receive the maximum of 10 years, but a person who was placed on deferred adjudication on a first degree felony could receive a sentence of life or 99 years in prison if revoked.
You might ask yourself: why in the world with anyone want that kind of probation?
The answer has several parts. The first part is that with a deferred adjudication probation, you are not "technically" convicted. This is because the judge does not specifically find that you are guilty of the offense. Rather, the judge merely finds that there is sufficient evidence upon which a finding of guilt could be made. So, after being placed on a deferred adjudication, even though you entered a plea of "guilty," you could truthfully say that you had not been convicted. If this sounds like hair splitting to you, then you are understanding it perfectly.
The second part of the answer has to do with what stays on your record.
There is some bad information going around about how getting a deferred adjudication means that the offense will somehow automatically be taken off your record. That is not exactly true. I say it is not "exactly" true that the offense will somehow automatically be taken off your record because article 42.12 A? 5(c) does say "on expiration of a [deferred adjudication] period, if the judge has not proceeded to adjudication of guilt, the judge shall dismiss the proceedings against the defendant and discharge him." But this is not as good as it might sound. The proceedings may have been dismissed, and you may have been discharged from your deferred adjudication, but that doesn't mean that the offense was taken off your record.
Petitions for Nondisclosure
People who successfully complete a deferred adjudication probation in certain cases can petition the court for an order of non-disclosure so that private businesses cannot learn about your case after the court has ordered the clerk of the court and other governmental agencies not to release that information. An order of nondisclosure does not mean that your record has been erased. Governmental agencies can still find it. If, God forbid, you were arrested again, then the police and the prosecutor could find out about this case with absolutely no trouble. Orders of non-disclosure do not come automatically. You have to petition for them.
The difference between a felony and a misdemeanor deferred adjudication probation.
The third part of the answer is that while it's true in many felony cases that a deferred adjudication presents more risk than benefit, in many misdemeanor cases a deferred adjudication doesn't present you with a lot more risk. Take a Class B Misdemeanor, for example, which is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and up to a $2,000 fine. If the prosecutor makes alternative recommendations of 160 days in jail probated for 18 months or 18 months of deferred adjudication, the difference in terms of jail time is obviously only 20 more days. That's not a lot of additional risk.