Like most other states and the federal government, California punishes more serious crimes as felonies, which typically involve the possibility of prison time.
California law defines a felony as a crime that carries a penalty of death, incarceration in state prison, or—for certain lower-level felonies—incarceration in county jail. Other less-serious offenses are considered misdemeanors in California, which are generally punishable by fines and/or up to 364 days in county jail. Crimes less serious than misdemeanors are infractions, which result only in fines.
Many crimes, however, may be treated as either felonies or misdemeanors, and courts can change felony convictions to misdemeanors in some circumstances.
Unlike many other states, California doesn't divide felonies into classes or categories (such as Class A or Level 1, and so on). The only indication of how serious a felony is in California is the punishment allowed for it under the law.
(Cal. Penal Code §§ 17, 18.5 (2023).)
Once someone is convicted, the judge will sentence them under the laws of the Penal Code. California's sentencing rules limit how lenient or harsh the sentence can be for various crimes.
Unless someone is sentenced to death or life without parole (LWOP)—which happens only in certain kinds of very serious cases—California felony sentences are either "determinate" or "indeterminate."
A determinate sentence is a set period of time that the person will spend in custody. For example, someone sentenced to three years in prison will get out when the three years are up (and probably before then, because they'll likely earn good time/work time credit against their sentence).
But an indeterminate sentence is just like it sounds; there's no determined end to it. In other words, indeterminate sentences are life sentences. For instance, someone sentenced to seven years to life will be eligible for release after seven years, but there's no guarantee they'll get out then, or even later. It's up to the parole board to decide when the person will be released.
If the crime calls for an indeterminate sentence, the judge won't have much choice in what the sentence should be. For example, the crime of first-degree murder (with no special circumstances) has only one sentence that can be imposed: 25 years to life.
But most felonies in California call for determinate sentences, which give the judge more choice in the sentence. For those felonies, the law sets out three possible sentences that the judge can choose from (often called the lower, middle, and upper terms). At the sentencing hearing, the judge must choose one of the terms, unless the law allows an alternative sentence (more on that below).
The lowest possible sentencing range for a felony is 16 months, two years, or three years. So long as the Penal Code doesn't list a different punishment for a particular felony, the 16-2-3 range applies. But many felonies come with their own specific range of punishment. For example, first-degree robbery carries a sentence of three, six, or nine years.
(Cal. Penal Code §§ 18, 190, 213 (2023).)
Although there are three possible terms the judge can choose from, there are rules that might limit the judge's choice. Under California law, judges can't impose more than the middle term unless aggravating factors support the high term. If the judge wants to rely on aggravating factors to impose the high term, those factors must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt (unless the judge relies on the person's prior convictions, which don't have to be proved to the jury).
And under changes to California law in 2022, the judge must impose the lowest prison term when there are certain mitigating factors that aren't outweighed by aggravating factors (and the low term isn't against the interests of justice). Under these changes, the low term is now presumed to be the appropriate sentence when the convicted person:
The judge can rely on any other mitigating factors to impose the low term as well. Unlike aggravating factors, mitigating factors don't have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt and don't have to go to the jury.
(Cal. Penal Code §§ 1016.7, 1170 (2023).)
California requires that people serve their sentences in county jail rather than state prison, unless:
(Cal. Penal §§ 667, 1170 (2023).)
Many crimes in California are "wobblers," meaning they can be treated as either a felony or a misdemeanor. For instance, most sexual battery offenses (which in California are much less serious rape and sexual assault) have two possible punishments: (1) up to 364 days in county jail and/or a maximum fine of $2,000 (the misdemeanor sentence); or (2) incarceration for two, three, or four years, plus a maximum fine of $10,000 (the felony sentence). Other common wobblers include assault with a deadly weapon, grand theft auto, and some forms of vehicular manslaughter.
Also, some crimes—like violating a domestic violence protective order—are straight misdemeanors for a first offense but become a wobbler under some circumstances, including when the person has certain types of prior convictions.
Prosecutors can decide to charge wobblers as either felonies or misdemeanors. But even if felony charges have been filed and the person has been convicted, the judge can reduce the crime to a misdemeanor by:
(Cal. Penal Code §§ 17, 18, 193, 243.4, 245 (2023).)
Enhancements are allegations that, if proved to the jury (or judge), can turn a run-of-the-mill felony into something more serious. Some common enhancements include gang and gun enhancements, which significantly ramp up the punishment for certain crimes.
For example, carjacking is usually punished by three, five, or nine years in California. But if the carjacking was committed for the benefit of a gang, it carries a sentence of 15 to life. Here's another example: Using a gun during a robbery (pointing it, for example), adds 10 years to the robbery sentence. If the person shoots the gun during the robbery, it's an additional 20 years instead, even if no one is hit. But if someone is hit, and suffers great bodily injury or death, the person gets an additional 25 years to life on top of the robbery sentence.
Also, under California's "Three Strikes" law, defendants with one or more prior convictions for serious or violent felonies must serve longer sentences for their latest felony conviction. The rules are complicated, and depend on the number of previous convictions and the nature of the current crime. With two or more previous convictions, some people could find themselves facing 25 years to life in prison—unless the current conviction isn't for a serious or violent felony.
In addition, the person must serve an extra five years as a sentence enhancement for each previous conviction for a serious felony.
There are various other types of enhancements, depending on the type of crime, the way it was committed, and other factors.
(Cal Penal Code §§ 186.22, 667, 1170.12, 12022.53 (2023).)
In many felony cases, the judge has the option of imposing a sentence that doesn't involve time behind bars. Many people might be eligible for probation, house arrest, community service, and other alternatives to incarceration.
Some serious offenses, repeat convictions, and other circumstances could make someone ineligible for these types of alternatives.
If you've been charged with a felony in California, you should seek help from an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Felony convictions have serious long-term consequences, even after you've served your sentence. A good lawyer can help you prepare the best possible defense and, if it's appropriate, negotiate a favorable plea bargain—which might include having the charges reduced to a misdemeanor, depending on the facts of the case.
And if you've already been convicted of a felony, you may want to speak with a criminal defense lawyer about trying clear your criminal record with a dismissal or, if the crime was a wobbler, applying to have it reduced to a misdemeanor.
California frequently changes its criminal laws, but you can check the current statutes by using the state legislature's code search tool. Court decisions may also affect how the laws are applied and interpreted—another good reason to consult with a lawyer if you're concerned about actual or potential criminal charges.