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Probation Reform in California - Assembly Bill 1950

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Feb 01, 2021

AB 1950 and Subsequent Case Law Provide Substantial Benefits to Probationers in California Criminal Cases

In order to address an ineffective supervision system, California Assembly Bill 1950 deals with the difficult issue of probation reform by aiming to restructure the system.

This reform will most likely reduce the number of inmates in prison for a violation of probation, while also reducing related costs.

AB 1950 was signed into law by Governor Newsom in October 2020 and claims it will cap probation for numerous crimes that are relevant to criminal defense.

Probation Reform in California - Assembly Bill 1950
AB 1950 is designed to reform probation by restructuring the system and reduce costs.

Informal vs formal probation 

Under prior California law, misdemeanor criminal defendants could be lawfully placed on probation by a sentencing court for up to three years, known as informal or summary probation

Formal probation, on the other hand, applied to felony criminal defendants placed on probation and could technically extend up to the maximum confinement time in state prison for the relevant felony offense. 

In practice, however, terms of felony probation usually lasted between three and five years. For most low level felonies, a typical probationary term was five years.

AB 1950 serves to reduce probation terms for numerous crimes by capping probation periods for many sentences. Our Los Angeles criminal lawyers are providing a review below.

What Does Assembly Bill 1950 Change?

The goal of AB 1950 is to restructure the California probation system. In a misdemeanor or felony case that carries a jail sentence or a mandatory probationary period, probation is designed to reduce or eliminate time in prison, but under a period of supervision.

What Does Assembly Bill 1950 Change?
California Assembly Bill 1950 reduces the maximum probation term for a misdemeanor to one year.

However, probation normally lasts several years and fails to provide any rehabilitation and does not reduce the high costs. In fact, California state prisons have a huge population of parole violators.

A study from the United States Department of Justice showed that probation has a positive impact on defendant for about two years, but any time after that is actually detrimental to the probation population.

California Assembly Bill 1950 dramatically changes these probation time periods:

  • for misdemeanors, the maximum probation term is now one year;
  • for felonies, the maximum probation term is two years.

In other words, AB 1950 is probation reform bill that covers numerous offenses, including drug crimes.

What Types of Crimes Are Not Amended by AB 1950?

There are several exceptions where AB 1950 does not apply:

  • For violent and serious felonies, usually those offenses which fall under the provisions of California's three-strikes law, probation can continue to be imposed for a period not exceeding the maximum possible confinement time for the underlying offense;
  • A small set of felony offenses in the Penal Code also contain specific probationary periods in their provisions.

These time periods will also continue to apply notwithstanding the two-year limitation. 

Also, certain financial crimes with loss amounts over $25,000 may be subject to a three-year limit rather than the general two year limit on grants of formal probation. 

Some of the most common California crimes that are not impacted by AB 1950 include:

  • Penal Code 187 PC - murder
  • Penal Code 664/187 PC - attempted murder,
  • Penal Code 245 PC - assault with a deadly weapon,
  • Penal Code 207 PC - kidnapping,
  • Penal Code 215 PC - carjacking,
  • Penal Code 192(a) PC - voluntary manslaughter,
  • Penal Code 211 PC - robbery,
  • Penal Code 459 PC - first-degree burglary,
  • Penal Code 203 PC - mayhem,
  • Penal Code 261 PC - rape,
  • Penal Code 261.5 PC – statutory rape,
  • Penal Code 273.5 PC – corporal injury to spouse,
  • Penal Code 273.6 PC - violation of restraining order,
  • Penal Code 422 PC - criminal threats,
  • Penal Code 273d PC - child abuse,
  • Penal Code 646.9 PC – stalking.

Nevertheless, even with these exceptions, AB 1950 is expected to provide substantial benefits to most probationers and in particular to felony probationers.

People v. Burton

Several appellate cases which have been decided since the enactment of the new law confirm that these changes to probation time limits are retroactive. 

The first court to consider the issue was the Los Angeles Superior Court's Appellate Department in the case of People v. Burton

Los Angeles Superior Court’s Appellate Department in the case of People v. Burton
Appellate cases decided since the enactment of AB 1950 confirm changes to probation are retroactive.

Burton was found guilty after a jury trial of violations of the Los Angeles Municipal Code relating to safety of a building he controlled as a beneficiary of an owner's trust. 

After being found guilty, the trial court placed Burton on 36 months' summary probation with various conditions. 

Burton appealed based on his belief that one of these conditions was a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights.

Estrada Doctrine

While the appeal was pending, the California governor signed AB 1950, reducing the maximum possible probation term for a misdemeanor conviction to one year. 

Burton alleged that this change in the law retroactively entitled him to relief. This contention implicated the Estrada doctrine. Under Estrada:

  • when the legislature amends a criminal statute to reduce the punishment for an offense;
  • courts will presume that the change applies retroactively to all cases in which judgment is not final.

Judgment is typically found to be final once a sentence is complete or all available opportunities for appeal have been exhausted, either because appeals have been filed and rejected or because relevant time periods have expired.

The issue in Burton's case was whether summary probation qualified as “punishment.” 

The court concluded that it did, and accordingly applied the rule of Estrada to order Burton's 36-month probation to be vacated. 

The appellate department remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to impose no more than 12 months of probation based on AB 950.

People v. Quinn

Following, Burton, the First District Court of Appeals considered the retroactive application of AB 950 in a felony case. In People v. Quinn, the defendant was:

  • placed on three years of formal probation;
  • after her conviction for attempting to transport marijuana across state lines.

Quinn challenged not only the three-year time period but several other conditions of her probation which are not relevant here.

Noting the holding in Burton, the Quinn court conducted its own Estrada retroactivity analysis and likewise concluded that the felony probation amendments apply retroactively to probationers whose cases are not yet final. 

Argument for California attorney general

The Attorney General, arguing for the government, suggested that probationers sentenced to more than two years of formal probation should have to separately petition the court pursuant to the Penal Code § 1203.3 for early termination of probation rather than automatically receive a reduction in their probation terms. 

At least as applied to those whose cases have not reached final judgement, however, the Court of Appeals disagreed. 

The Court of Appeals directly ordered that Quinn's probation be reduced to two years based on the change in law enacted in AB 1950.

Criminal Defense Lawyer for California Crimes

Whether AB 1950 applies, and how it applies, to a given case requires a case-by-case analysis of the law and facts in each particular circumstances. 

If you, or someone you know, is on probation or is considering accepting a probationary offer in a criminal case, contact our experienced team of Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys for an initial consultation.

Criminal Defense Lawyer for California Crimes
Contact Eisner Gorin LLP if you believe your probation can be impacted by AB 1950.

If you believe your probation period can be terminated pursuant to AB 1950, contact our office to review the details of your case.

Eisner Gorin LLP is a nationally recognized criminal defense law firm serving clients in Southern California, including Los Angeles County, Orange County, Ventura County, Santa Barbara County, Riverside, and San Bernardino.

Our firm is located at 1999 Avenue of the Stars, 11th Fl., Los Angeles, CA 90067.

Our main office is in the San Fernando Valley area of LA County next to the Van Nuys Superior Court at 14401 Sylvan St #112 Van Nuys, CA 91401.

About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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