AB 1950: Probation Reform

AB 1950 — “An act to amend Sections 1203a and 1203.1 of the Penal Code, relating to probation” — was a priority bill introduced by the Black Caucus in California, and was written with the goal of reducing recidivism rates by providing a pathway out of the California carceral system for those who are on probation. Before the passage of AB 1950, misdemeanor probation could run for as long as 3 years, and felony probation could run for as long as the maximum possible sentence of the offense, or a maximum of 5 years for those offenses with a five-year or shorter maximum sentence. While probation is a valid alternate sentence to help people avoid prison, it also opened up the door to probation violations that could lead to prison time regardless. 

In fact, a 2018 study by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments revealed that 20 percent of prison admissions in California are the result of probation violations, accounting for the estimated $2 billion spent annually by the state to incarcerate people for supervision violations. Roughly 8 percent of inmates in the California prison system are there for probation violations, and nearly half of those violations are minor technicalities like missed appointments or socializing with an individual with a criminal record. This costly and unproductive arrangement with probation terms has created a pipeline to recidivism, and the REFORM Alliance, through their work with Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove (the main sponsor of the bill) has successfully had a bill passed to reform California probationary limits.

According to the bill itself: 

“Existing law authorizes courts that have jurisdiction in misdemeanor cases to suspend the sentence and make and enforce terms of probation in those cases, for a period not to exceed 3 years, except when the period of the maximum sentence imposed by law exceeds 3 years, in which case the terms of probation may be imposed for a longer period than 3 years, but not to exceed the time for which the person may be imprisoned.

This bill would instead restrict the period of probation for a misdemeanor to no longer than one year, except as specified.

Existing law authorizes the court, in the order granting probation, to suspend the imposition or execution of sentence and direct the suspension to continue for a period of time not exceeding the maximum term for which the person could be imprisoned, except as specified.

This bill would instead authorize a court to impose a term of probation not longer than 2 years, except as specified.”

Benefits of AB 1950 Probationary Reform in California

One of the central issues with previous probationary terms in California was the fact that many individuals on probation ultimately ended up in prison due to technicalities or minor violations, ultimately meaning that the probation was not effective in keeping people out of prison, to begin with. Policing these minor probation violations is an expensive effort in California that costs an estimated $2 billion each year, or $4,400 per taxpayer, to incarcerate people for things as minor as coming home late from work.

The REFORM Alliance estimated that California could save $2.1 billion each year by lowering the limits of misdemeanor probation from 3 years to 1 year, and lowering felony probation for certain crimes from 5 years to 2 years, and decrease the probation population by 33 percent. 

In terms of the individuals on probation, this bill is significant in that it will reduce the length of their probation and allow them to get on with their normal lives without living in fear of prison because of the minor violations or technical issues that result in so many of those on probation to be sent to prison. There are a number of felony offenses that will not be impacted by this reform, and if you are uncertain of whether or not your own situation is impacted, we encourage you to contact the Law Office of Vikas Bajaj, APC to discuss with a California criminal defense attorney today.

What Does Probation Entail?

Probation is alternative sentencing that many courts use with the goal of helping defendants avoid prison sentences. The legal code typically sets out punishments for corresponding crimes that include fines as well as prison terms, but a judge may decide to put a defendant on probation instead of sentencing them to the recommended prison sentence. During the time that the defendant is on probation, they will need to meet a number of requirements that include things like drug and alcohol treatment and education programs, anger management therapy, paying restitution to victims or into a restitution fund, maintain employment, have scheduled and ongoing meetings with a probation officer, and more. In addition, someone on probation must not commit any more crimes while on probation, or their punishments will be enhanced based on the terms set forth by the judge in the original sentencing. 

On the surface, probation seems like an excellent alternative to imprisonment, and if completed successfully it can allow someone to focus on recovering from the issues that led them to commit the initial crime; however, AB 1950 sets out to address problems with probation that have shown to increase recidivism rates and unintentionally lead to higher incarceration rates for non-violent and non-serious crimes. 

When individuals on probation no longer need to live in constant fear of imprisonment due to minor parole violations, and the state of California no longer needs to spend billions of dollars each year policing these violations, we will be able to move forward together and continue to reduce recidivism rates for these non-violent and non-serious crimes that have historically been a pipeline to more serious incarceration and individuals being “trapped” in the carceral system. 

Types of Crime With Probation Terms NOT Amended By AB 1950 

Under AB 1950, most misdemeanors and a number of felonies will have reduced according to the specific terms set out in the bill. However, there are many crimes that will not be impacted by the amendments to Sections 1203a and 1203.1 of the Penal Code, including the following:

  • Violent felonies set forth in Penal Code Section 667.5 including:
    • Murder or voluntary manslaughter
    • Mayhem
    • Rape
    • Sodomy
    • Lewd or lascivious acts
    • Any felony punishable by death or life imprisonment
    • Robbery
    • Arson
    • Sexual penetration
    • Attempted Murder
    • Kidnapping
    • Carjacking
    • Rape, spousal rape, or sexual penetration
    • Extortion
    • Threats to witnesses or victims
    • Burglary of the first degree

This list is not comprehensive. In order to see the complete list of those crimes considered “violent,” you may refer to Penal Code Section 667.5. If you have been charged with a felony and are uncertain as to whether or not it will be considered violent or non-violent, or if the amendments to the Penal Code under AB 1950 will impact your case, it is important that you partner with an experienced criminal defense attorney in California as soon as possible. We will work with you to understand the nature of your crimes and the possible penalties that come with them and work towards a favorable or reasonable outcome on your behalf.

Is AB 1950 Retroactive?

There is currently no clear understanding of whether or not AB 1950 will apply retroactively to those who are already on probation in California. Once the law goes into effect on January 1, 2021, there will certainly be opportunities for us to discover whether or not the courts will consider this to be a retroactive bill, or if it will only apply to cases starting after these amendments have been put into law.

Once this law goes into effect, it will apply to any crime that an individual is convicted of from January 1, 2021, and forward. If you have been charged with a misdemeanor, non-violent felony, or non-serious felony and are awaiting trial, then the changes put into law by AB 1950 may also apply to your case. 

AB 1950 and DUI Convictions

It is likely that DUI convictions will not be included in the amendments to probationary periods, as the bill specifically states that it does not apply to misdemeanor or felony convictions that include specific probation lengths within their provisions. Since there are specific probationary terms laid out in the California DUI laws, these lengths will not be changed. However, the team at the Law Office of Vikas Bajaj, APC has extensive experience representing DUI cases and will be happy to help you through your case in order to work towards a favorable outcome.

Did Governor Gavin Newsom Sign AB 1950 Into Law?

On September 30, 2020, California Governor signed AB 1950 into law, effective January 1, 2021. This was the final step in a significant push by the REFORM Alliance, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the bill’s main sponsor Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove. 

As Governor Newson signed this bill and many other reform bills into law, he made the following statement:

“Americans across the country took to the streets this summer rightfully demanding more and better of our criminal justice system–and of ourselves. We heard those calls for action loud and clear and today are advancing reforms to improve policing practices by ending the carotid hold and requiring independent investigations in officer-involved shootings. We are also taking important steps to break the school-to-prison pipeline. Still, we can and must do more.”

Criminal justice reform has been a hot topic over the course of 2020, and it is almost certain that these conversations and reform bills will continue to be introduced through 2021 and beyond. With groups like the REFORM Alliance fighting for these reforms and making strategic partnerships with legislators across the country, there is a lot of momentum for this type of progress.

Who Is the REFORM Alliance?

The REFORM Alliance is a justice reform coalition co-chaired by rapper Meek Mill, CNN host, and political contributor Van Jones, and tech entrepreneur Michael Rubin, including partners like rapper Shawn Carter, known as Jay-Z, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and a host of others. REFORM Alliance was initially formed following the re-incarceration of Meek Mill due to a minor parole violation. These minor violations resulted in a two- to four-year sentence that Meek Mill was able to fight due to his own resources and public platform, but the experience made him realize that millions of others were in far more dire circumstances without access to financial or social resources available to a widely-known and successful artist. 

Following Newsom’s signature on this landmark reform bill, co-chair Michael Rubin made the following statement:  “This is exactly why we created REFORM – to change laws and create a smarter criminal justice system focused on rehabilitation and redemption all while keeping communities safe. We’re grateful for Governor Newsom and Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove’s commitment to making such meaningful change in California and we hope it sets a necessary precedent for state leaders across the country.”

According to REFORM’s website: “The mission of the REFORM Alliance is to dramatically reduce the number of people who are unjustly under the control of the criminal justice system – starting with probation and parole. To win, we will work to change laws, policies, hearts, and minds.”

Working With a Criminal Defense Attorney

If you have been charged with a crime in California, contact our law firm as soon as possible to partner with an experienced criminal defense attorney. The first step towards avoiding disproportionate and lengthy probation or incarceration sentences is to work towards having your charges reduced, or to work out an acceptable plea deal with prosecutors that will help you get back on your feet as soon as possible. The team at the Law Office of Vikas Bajaj, APC has years of experience representing defendants for a range of crimes, and we will be happy to discuss your situation during our initial consultation.