A Term of Probation as Sentence in California
If you have been ordered to complete a term of probation in California, it is imperative that you have a thorough understanding of what is expected of you while on probation and what can happen to you if you violate your probation.
If you are convicted of a criminal offense in the State of California you will be sentenced accordingly. Often, the sentence will include a term of probation. This may be in lieu of a term of imprisonment or in addition to a term of imprisonment. Either way, probation should be taken seriously because violating the terms of your probation could result in a return to jail. If you are sentenced to a term of probation it is imperative that you go over the sentence you received and the terms of your probation with your California criminal defense attorney to make sure you understand both because no two sentencing orders are exactly the same. As a probationer, however, there is a wealth of general information that you may find helpful throughout your period of probation.
What Is Probation?
When the State of California files formal charges against you there are three ways those charges can be resolved – dismissal, trial, or plea bargain. If the State dismisses the charges against you the case is over. If you decide to take your case to trial a judge or jury will decide your fate. If you are found guilty at trial the judge will then decide an appropriate sentence. If you decide to accept a plea bargain negotiate between the prosecuting attorney and your criminal defense attorney, your sentence will be whatever was agreed upon in the plea agreement as long as the judge approves the agreement.
Probation may be part of the sentence you receive after trial or pursuant to a plea agreement. One thing people often misunderstand is the suspended sentence that is frequently included when probation is ordered. The court may actually sentence you to two years in prison, for example, but suspend the entire sentence and order you to spend those two years on probation instead. While this means you are not going to prison it is crucial to understand that you have been sentenced to a prison term by the court and any violation of your probation may result in you actually executing the suspended portion of your sentence.
Most importantly, it is important to understand that during the term of your probation you remain under the jurisdiction of the court, meaning the judge continues to have a certain degree of control over your life until you successfully complete your probation.
Felony vs. Misdemeanor Probation
In California, a defendant can be sentenced to felony or misdemeanor probation, depending on the crime for which he or she is convicted. Felony probation, also known as “formal” probation, typically lasts for three to five years and may be ordered to follow a short period of incarceration in the county jail. Not surprisingly, felony probation is more restrictive than misdemeanor probation.
Misdemeanor probation, commonly referred to as “informal” or “summary” probation, usually lasts for one to three years. Because the underlying offenses are less serious, misdemeanor probation is often less restrictive than its felony counterpart. A felony probationer, for example, will be required to report to a probation officer on a regular basis whereas if you are on misdemeanor probation you will likely only be required to report to a judge for a progress report every few months.
When a judge sentences a defendant to probation the judge will also decide the terms of the defendant’s probation. There are standard conditions of probation that all probationers must abide by and specific conditions tailored to the unique facts and circumstances of the conviction and/or defendant. Some standard conditions may include, but are not limited to:
- Reporting to a probation officer or the court as directed
- Maintaining employment or enrollment in school if applicable
- Not moving out of the county without permission from the court
- Not using drugs
- Not committing another criminal offense
- Paying court costs and fines
Specific conditions of probation that might be ordered include, but are not limited to:
- Alcohol and drug assessment
- Successful completion of an alcohol or drug rehabilitation program
- Anger management/domestic violence counseling
- No contact with victim
- Payment of restitution to a victim
- Completion of community work service
- Installation of an ignition interlock device (for DUI convictions)
- Registration as a sex offender (for sex crimes and related offenses)
- HIV/STD testing and/or education/counseling
Until you reach the successful completion of your term of probation, you remain under court supervision. If your probation officer or the judge feels you have violated your probation an official notice of violation may be filed with the court. You could simply be ordered to appear for a hearing or a warrant for your arrest could be issued. Common reasons for being violated include:
- You were charged with a new offense
- You tested positive on a drug or alcohol test
- You failed to complete specific conditions (counseling, testing, community work service) in a timely manner
- The victim reported attempts to contact him/her
A probation violation hearing is less formal than a criminal trial, meaning the same evidentiary and procedural rules may not apply. Despite this, you have the right (and it is strongly recommended that you assert that right) to have an attorney represent you should a violation be filed against you.If the judge finds that you did, indeed, violate your probation the judge will typically do one of three things:
- Revoke your probation. This is most likely to occur if the violation is serious (new serious charge) or you have been violated several times already. If this happens, the judge will likely order you to serve all, or some, of your original term of incarceration.
- Modify your probation. This outcome is most likely if the violation is something the court feels it can help with, such as a positive drug test or failure to pay costs and fines. The court might add additional terms to your probation such as drug and alcohol counseling or might order you to work off your court costs through performing community work service.
- Continue your probation as is. If the violation is something very minor, and you have otherwise performed well while on probation, the court might overlook the violation and simply continue your probation without modifying the terms and conditions.
More About Probation in California
For more information about probation in the state of California, the following related resources are available for your review:
- Section 1203.2 (California Penal Code)
- Probation Conditions: Adult and Juvenile (First District Appellate Project)
- Adult Probation Frequently Asked Questions (San Bernardino County)
If you have questions about your probation or are concerned that you have violated your probation, consult with an experienced California criminal defense attorney right away.