Understanding Probation in California

John M. Kaman

Written by

Criminal Defense Attorney - San Francisco, CA

Posted May 16, 2009

CA Probation: Formal or Informal?

To understand how probation works in CA you must understand the difference between formal and informal probation (court probation). Formal probation requires that you register with the Adult Probation Department of your county where you will be assigned a probation officer who will supervise you throughout your probation. In the beginning you may have to meet with him once a week. Once you show you will perform the conditions of probation your meetings may be less often. Court or informal probation does not require registration or supervision. The primary condition is that you obey all laws during the term of probation. If you are arrested again during your probation the DA will seek to have your probation modified or terminated.

Probation: Right or Privilege

Most people do not understand that probation is not a right but a privilege. It is an alternative to a jail or a prison term dependent upon your performing the terms of your probation. If you violate your probation you will be arrested and held until a probation revocation hearing. You have no right to a jury trial on the violation nor do you have a right to a speedy trial. You may end up in jail for months awaiting your violation hearing.

Some Important Probationary Terms

To obtain probation you must agree to give up certain rights. Besides the loss of a jury trial right and right to a speedy trial, you give up your right to freedom from searches of your residence, person, car and belongings. The police know who is on probation generally and often focus on probation searches which can come without any warning, day or night. Some forms of probation also require that you remain drug or alcohol free, particularly probation in domestic violence cases where substance abuse was a problem. Other terms may require participation in drug or alcohol or anger management classes.


These abbreviations hold huge differences for probationers. ISS means imposition of sentence suspended while ESS means execution of sentence suspended. If you have an offer of ISS and probation it means no sentence will be imposed until there is a violation of probation. In ISS cases the judge has more freedom to modify rather than revoke probation. ESS means that you have been sentenced and a violation of probation will normally mean that you must serve the original sentence. Although some judges are reluctant to do this, someone who violates probation should expect no mercy in an ESS case.

Should I Accept Probation?

Many people do not understand that they have the right to serve their sentences instead of conforming to the sometimes heavy demands of being on probation. Particularly in DUI cases, a first offense may get you credit for time served but carry with it burdensome and oppressive terms of probation. In many of these cases you could do a couple of weeks in jail and be done with the whole thing (although the DMV will still impose conditions on the reissuance of your license). Most people who accept probation do so to get out of jail as soon as possible. It is important to understand that sometimes doing a short jail term is better and easier than doing years of probation.

How Long Will My Probation Last? Can It Be Terminated Early?

Probation usually last 3 years in California although longer terms are possible. If you have successfully completed program requirements you can petition to have your probation terminated after 2 years. It is best to have this agreement spelled out in the record at the time of your original sentencing.

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John M. Kaman

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John M. Kaman
John Kaman has been practicing law for 34 years and has been on Avvo since 2008.

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