Felony probation: an alternative to prison in California
Felony probation – also called formal probation – is an alternative to prison or jail time for many felony offenses in California. Generally, violent or sexual offenders are much less likely to receive a sentence of probation and will probably spend time behind bars instead of serving time in the community while under the supervision of a probation officer.
But as you might imagine, felony probation carries many conditions – including any restrictions set by the sentencing judge, who has a wide range of discretion to determine what is appropriate on a case-by-case basis.
There are three possible results when someone is found guilty of a felony offense in California:
- The judge may sentence the defendant to incarceration (confinement in jail or prison) for a specified amount of time.
- The judge may allow the defendant to serve out their jail or prison sentence in the community so long as certain conditions are met.
- The judge may place the defendant under supervision without imposing any incarceration period.
The last two outcomes are known as formal or felony probation. Felony probation is an alternative to incarceration under Section 1203.1 of the California Penal Code. Felony probation in California usually lasts between three and seven years.
Who Qualifies For Felony Probation?
At the sentencing hearing, the defendant and state can both make arguments for and against felony probation. While the judge has discretion in determining whether or not to grant felony probation, a defendant is most likely to qualify for felony probation when some or all of the following condition are met:
- The county probation department agrees that probation is appropriate.
- The felony committed is not of a violent or serious felony under California Penal Code Sections 667.5(c) or 1192.7. In particular, individuals found guilty of felonies such as rape, murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and certain sexual crimes are less likely to qualify for felony probation.
- Incarceration will have a negative impact on the defendant’s family.
- The defendant is likely to comply with the probation requirements.
- The judge believes the defendant is not a danger to the community.
Conditions of Felony Probation
In return for avoiding incarceration, individuals on felony probation must comply with certain conditions set by the probation officer and the court. Common examples of probation conditions include the following:
- Regular meetings with a probation officer.
- Participation in drug, individual, and/or group counseling.
- Drug testing if the defendant committed a drug crime.
- Payment of damages (restitution) to the victim or state.
- Completing a specified amount of community service hours.
- The requirement to allow officers to search their person, vehicle, or home without a warrant.
- Compliance with do not contact orders or orders not to associate with gang members or other specific individuals.
- Restrictions on travel, such as not being able to leave a specified geographic area without permission of the probation officer, and/or a curfew which restricts the individual’s freedom to be outside their home or place of work at night.
However, this list is not exhaustive. Judges have wide discretion to determine probation conditions based on the specific crime and other circumstance of the case.
Consequences for Violating Probation Terms
If a person violates the established terms of their felony probation, a judge may do any of the following:
- Issue a formal warning
- Impose a fine
- Impose stricter probation terms, such as more frequent meetings with a probation officer.
- Revoke probation and send the defendant to county jail or a state prison to serve some or all of their original sentence.