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What is summary probation?

UPDATED: June 19, 2018

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Summary probation, also called informal or misdemeanor probation, is a discretionary suspension of a sentence by the court and places the offender under the supervision of the court, not the probation department. Designed for first-time or juvenile offenders, it is discretionary because the prosecutor and/or court will generally have to agree to impose summary probation. While jail time is also possible in summary probation cases, time served will often be limited to the minimum sentence for the crime.

The purpose of this type of probation is to provide the offender with a chance to become rehabilitated while providing accountability with intensive court supervision. The offender pleads guilty to the charges and is given a conditional, suspended sentence, placed under court supervision and ordered to abide by certain terms for a set period of time. Not all states provide this alternative choice to the typical formal probation process.


Summary probation is normally given to lesser-offenders, such as first-time offenders and juveniles. The lesser-offender, seen by the court as a low-risk re-offender, essentially trades jail time for service outside of jail. This alternative choice to formal probation can lower the risk of the offender becoming a hardened criminal and, hopefully, bring about a behavioral change.

It is generally only given in cases in which the offender commits a low-level felony, a misdemeanor or a wobbler. In California, a wobbler is a crime that the prosecutor has the discretion to charge as either a felony or a misdemeanor. Low-level felonies that may qualify for the imposition of summary probation include some alcohol and drug-related offenses, theft, and fraud. Misdemeanors that may qualify include shoplifting, disturbing the peace, and most traffic offenses.

If the candidate for summary probation is a juvenile, the juvenile’s prior history, such as prior court interventions and behavior at home or school will be assessed as well. Further, many courts will not agree to the imposition of summary probation in cases in which the juvenile has an unstable family or support system or has a history of abuse or neglect.

Terms of Summary Probation

Judges have a wide degree of discretion to impose the terms they see fit. Summary probation terms typically lasts anywhere from one month to five years. It involves conditions such as paying restitution to the victim, mandatory attendance at group or individual drug and alcohol classes, abstaining from drugs and alcohol, having gainful employment and/or attending school, performing community service, and paying fines. Terms may also be imposed that are specifically related to the crime. For instance, the court may order the offender to abide by a restraining order in a domestic violence offense, or to install an interlock ignition device in a multiple DUI offense.

In lieu of checking in with a probation officer, offenders check in with a judge on a regular basis to ensure compliance. At each appearance, the judge will review the offender’s case, ask questions about progress, and discuss any specific problems.

Probation Termination and Modification

A summary probation term can be modified or terminated for good reason, under the discretion of the court. For example, if an offender fulfills 2.5 years out of 3 years of his probation, and finds employment in another state, the judge may agree to modify the rest of his probation so that it can be completed in the other state, or the judge may agree to terminate the probation early.

If an offender is having difficulty keeping up restitution payments, the judge may change the payment schedule so that the offender is able to fulfill the terms of the probation successfully. Furthermore, a judge may also agree to modify or terminate completely in cases in which the offender has done especially well in completing the probation terms.

Revocation of Summary Probation

It is important to remember that summary probation is a conditional sentence. So long as the conditions and terms of the court-imposed summary probation are followed, a defendant will be successful. If defendants do not comply, the court may end the summary probation and impose the original sentence for the crime, as well as additional penalties for the violation of probation itself. Probation revocation may result from violating of any of the terms of the summary probation, disregarding a court order, or arrest.

If the offender violates his probation, the court will order a probation violation hearing. There, the offender will be given an opportunity to either deny the violation or explain the reasons for the violation. If the offender misses the probation violation hearing, this too is a violation, and will usually result in immediate probation revocation.

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