In Texas, felonies are crimes punishable by terms that must be served in state prison or state jail. Felonies in Texas are designated as capital felonies; first-, second-, or third-degree felonies; or state jail felonies. Less serious crimes (misdemeanors) are punishable by up to one year in local or county jail.
This article will discuss felony classifications, penalties, sentencing, and parole in Texas.
Texas divides felony crimes into five classifications. Below are the penalty ranges for each classification and examples of crimes that fall under them.
A capital felony is punishable by death. When the prosecutor seeks the death penalty, the defendant faces being sentenced to death or life without parole. If the prosecutor chooses not to seek the death penalty, a capital felony is punishable by life imprisonment. Capital murder is a capital felony.
A conviction for a first-degree felony can result in life imprisonment or 5 to 99 years' imprisonment, as well as a fine of up to $10,000. For aggravated sexual assault of a child, a 25-year minimum may apply (instead of 5). Other examples of first-degree felonies include child trafficking, aggravated robbery, and home invasion (intent to commit a felony).
A third-degree felony is punishable by 2 to 10 years' imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000. Continuous family violence, evading arrest in a vehicle, and stalking are examples of third-degree felonies.
In Texas, state jail felonies are punishable by 180 days to 2 years in state jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Firearm theft, possession of child pornography, and dogfighting are all state jail felonies.
Texas law imposes enhancements for repeat and habitual felony offenses, offenses involving deadly weapons, hate crimes, offenses committed in a disaster or evacuation area, and offenses against vulnerable persons, among others.
Texas recidivist statutes carry harsh penalties for a second or subsequent felony offense.
Sex offenses. Repeat sex offenses carry one of the harshest penalty enhancements in Texas. Essentially a two-strikes law, a defendant convicted of a second specified sex offense faces a mandatory life sentence.
First- to third-degree felonies. For defendants facing their second felony conviction for a first-, second-, or third-degree felony, the law increases the penalty by one degree. So, for instance, a third-degree felony becomes a second-degree felony. Habitual felony offenders who have two prior felony convictions face the possibility of life in jail.
State jail felonies. A person convicted of a third state jail faces third-degree felony penalties. If the two priors were for higher-level felonies, the penalty bumps up to a second-degree felony.
Certain offenses carry enhanced felony penalties of their own. For instance, enhancements apply to repeat convictions for the same or similar offenses, such as promotion of prostitution, family violence offenses, impaired driving, and theft offenses.
Crimes committed based on bias or prejudice are increased to the next punishment level, as are offenses committed in a declared disaster or evacuation area. Certain offenses committed in retaliation against a public servant also increase by a penalty level.
In some cases, a defendant might qualify for a pretrial intervention or diversion program offered by a prosecutor. These pretrial programs offer defendants a way to avoid criminal court and a criminal record. However, not all counties have these programs, and in those that do, eligibility varies. Some prosecution offices only offer diversion for misdemeanors, while others may include nonviolent felony offenses.
In a diversion program, a defendant must agree to abide by terms set by the prosecutor. As long a defendant complies with the agreed-upon terms, the prosecutor won't pursue the charges and agrees to dismiss the charges on completion. A violation means the prosecutor can reinstitute the criminal proceedings. Diversion agreements can last up to two years.
For those cases that end up in court, judges have several sentencing options available and can generally order one or more of the following:
A judge can also defer adjudication or suspend a sentence as described below.
Deferred adjudication refers to a process in which the judge accepts a defendant's guilty plea but holds off on entering the plea on the record. Instead, the judge places the defendant on community supervision or in a specialty court program. A defendant who successfully completes the community supervision terms or specialty court program may avoid a criminal conviction. Failure to abide by the terms means the judge can continue with adjudication and sentencing.
Eligibility. Most felony offenses are eligible for deferred adjudication, with exceptions for certain sex offenses and impaired driving offenses. Eligibility for a specialty court will vary by program and jurisdiction.
Community supervision is essentially probation. Defendants must abide by the terms of community supervision, such as obeying all laws, attending counseling, seeking addiction treatment, participating in community service, remaining under electronic monitoring, avoiding gangs, and paying restitution to the victim.
Specialty courts generally involve intensive supervision and case management to address underlying addiction or mental health issues. Examples of specialty courts include drug courts, mental health courts, and veteran's treatment courts.
Another option, short of incarceration, allows judges to suspend the imposition or execution of a sentence.
Imposition vs. execution. Suspending imposition means the judge enters the conviction but doesn't announce (impose) a sentence. When suspending execution (meaning to carry out, not kill), the judge announces the sentence but holds off on sending the defendant to prison. In either case, the judge typically places the defendant under community supervision for the duration of the suspension. As a condition of community supervision, a judge may order participation in a specialty court or placement at a substance abuse felony punishment facility. A violation of community supervision means the judge can revoke the suspension and send the defendant to prison.
Partial suspension; shock probation. Judges can also partially suspend the execution of a sentence. This authority is commonly referred to as "shock probation." It allows the judge to incarcerate the defendant for up to 180 days. Before the 180-day period is up, the judge may suspend the remainder of the sentence and place the defendant in community supervision (probation).
Eligibility. Judges can order community supervision as part of a suspended sentence only for state jail felonies and all other felonies where a defendant's sentence of incarceration is 10 years or less. Certain felony offenses are never eligible, including specified sex offenses and offenses that involved a dangerous weapon.
Duration. When ordered, the minimum sentence for the convicted offense represents the minimum period of community supervision. The maximum period for state jail felonies is 2 to 5 years. All other felony community supervision can last up to 5 or 10 years, depending on the offense.
Defendants convicted of a state jail felony will serve their time in a state jail. All other felony offenders serve time in state prisons, unless ordered to a felony substance abuse facility.
The sentence handed down by the judge represents the maximum amount of time a defendant must spend behind bars. Some defendants may be released from prison early and allowed to serve the remainder of the sentence on parole or mandatory supervision.
Parole represents a discretionary decision by a parole board to allow the early release of an inmate from prison. Early release doesn't end the sentence. But it allows a defendant to serve their sentence in the community based on good behavior in prison, as long as they maintain that good behavior outside the prison walls.
Earliest parole date. The timing of possible parole depends on the convicted offense and any good conduct credits earned by the inmate. Some inmates will reach their earliest parole date after serving one-fourth of their sentence. Any earned good conduct credits count toward this calculation. For instance, say a defendant serving a 20-year sentence earns a year's worth of good conduct credit. This defendant could be eligible for parole after serving 4 years (20 x 1/4 = 5 - 1 = 4). Inmates convicted of violent offenses or sex offenses generally won't be eligible for parole until serving one-half of their sentence (and no good time is allowed). Other convictions might require an inmate to serve a certain amount of time, such as 35 or 40 years. Some felony convictions are not eligible for parole.
Parole board. A parole board makes the call on parole release decisions. If released early, the inmate remains under parole supervision for the remainder of their sentence. An inmate denied parole can sometimes reapply after a set amount of time.
For inmates not on parole, release to mandatory supervision applies once an inmate has served their entire sentence minus any good conduct credits earned. Despite its name, though, the parole board can deny mandatory supervision release if it finds the inmate is a possible danger to public safety. Statute also prohibits mandatory release for certain violent offenses.
If released to mandatory supervision, the release will be supervised for the remainder of their sentence (generally however much good conduct time they earned).
Those under any type of supervision must abide by conditions similar to those for community supervision. A parolee or releasee must generally obey all laws, report to a supervisor, maintain employment, pay all fees, attend treatment, and abide by any no-contact orders, among other stipulations. Violating these terms can result in additional terms or a return to prison. Good conduct, however, can result in early termination from supervision.
A felony conviction can have extremely serious consequences. In addition to incarceration, a felony conviction can result in the loss of the right to vote or hold public office. It can be difficult to obtain or keep a job or a professional license if you have a felony record. If you are charged with a felony, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. An attorney will be able to tell you what to expect in court and how to best protect your rights.
(Tex. Code Crim. Proc. §§ 42A.101, 42A.203, 42A.303; Tex. Gov't Code §§ 76.011, 498.003, 508.145, 508.157; Tex. Penal Code §§ 12.04, 12.245, 12.31, 12.32, 12.33, 12.34, 12.35, 12.42, 12.43, 12.47, 12.50, 12.501 (2021).)