In California, felonies are crimes punishable by death or incarceration in state prison. Less serious crimes (misdemeanors) are punishable by up to 364 days in jail. (Cal. Pen. Code § § 16, 17, 18.5.)
For more information on misdemeanors in California, see California Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences.
In most states, lawmakers designate classes of crimes (such as “Class A felonies”) and fix punishment for each class. Each crime is then assigned to a particular class. California, along with some other states, does things differently. In California, lawmakers fix punishment on a crime-by-crime basis.
In many states, lawmakers set a range of possible imprisonment, such as three to five years, and the judge is permitted to craft the appropriate sentence within the range. In California, except for the most serious crimes that are punishable by life imprisonment, such as murder, lawmakers have set three possible terms: the low-, mid-, and high-term sentence. The judge must choose one of these three terms at sentencing. For example, assault with a machine gun is punishable by four, eight, or 12 years’ imprisonment.
For more information on this offense, see Assault with a Firearm in California.
If lawmakers have failed to set a punishment for a particular felony, it is punishable by 16 months or two or three years in prison and a fine.
“Wobblers” are crimes that can be either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on how the crime is charged and, sometimes, how the judge decides to treat the conviction. Many crimes in California are wobblers. If the crime is prosecuted as a misdemeanor, it will be punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a fine. (Cal. Pen. Code § 18.) If the crime is prosecuted as a felony, the defendant may still end up with a misdemeanor conviction if the prosecutor elects to prosecute the crime as a misdemeanor, the judge declares the crime to be a misdemeanor over the prosecutor’s objection, or the judge sentences the defendant to jail time or probation, rather than prison. (Cal. Pen. Code § 17.) Wobblers are most likely to result in a misdemeanor conviction if the facts show that the defendant’s behavior was not particularly egregious or if the defendant does not have a serious criminal record. Grand theft auto is an example of a crime that may be tried and punished as a misdemeanor or a felony.
For more information on this crime, see What are the consequences and penalties of auto theft in California?
California has a recidivist sentencing law, meaning that people who have prior felony convictions and are convicted of another crime can be sentenced to very long prison terms.
For more information, see Three Strikes and You're Out.
A statute of limitation is a time limit by which the state must begin criminal prosecution, or the defendant can have the case thrown out. While most states have one statute of limitations for felonies, another for misdemeanors, and a third for very serious crimes, California has many different statutes of limitations and many exceptions to the statutes of limitations.
For more information, see California Criminal Statute of Limitations.
If you are charged with a felony in California, you should talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney. An attorney can explain the legal process and help you obtain the best possible outcome in your case. Felony convictions have serious consequences, including time in prison, a loss of the right to vote and buy a gun, and difficulty obtaining certain jobs or professional licenses. The best way to avoid a felony conviction is to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney.