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California Felony Sentencing Laws & Mandatory Minimum Sentences

California Felony Sentencing Laws & Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Up until 1977, California law heavily favored the idea of indeterminate sentences and stated or implied that the amount of time someone convicted of a crime should be kept in prison would be determined by their personal characteristics, rather than the nature of the crime they committed.

New laws were passed, and California updated its approach to sentencing. California Penal Code § 1170 (a)(1) states,

“The Legislature finds and declares that the purpose of sentencing is public safety achieved through punishment, rehabilitation, and restorative justice. When a sentence includes incarceration, this purpose is best served by terms that are proportionate to the seriousness of the offense with provision for uniformity in the sentences of offenders committing the same offense under similar circumstances.”

While most states designate crimes by class (e.g. Class A Felony, Class 4 Felony, etc.), lawmakers in California set punishments for crimes on a case-by-case basis.


Under California Penal Code § 17, crimes and public offenses are classified as misdemeanors under the following conditions:

  • After judgements impose punishments other than imprisonment in county jail or state prison under California Penal Code § 1170 (h)(3).
  • When the defendant is committed to the Division of Juvenile Justice by the court.
  • When the defendant is granted probation without imposing a sentence at the time probation is granted, or upon the probation officer or defendant’s application afterwards.
  • When the prosecuting attorney files a complaint in the court with proper jurisdiction that the offense should be considered a misdemeanor.
  • When the magistrate determines that the offense should be considered a misdemeanor prior to filing an order based on the sworn testimony of a law enforcement officer, honorably retired or active who meets the set criteria (California Penal Code § 872) or prior to the preliminary examination.

Misdemeanor Sentencing in California

Under California Penal Code § 18.5, someone convicted of a misdemeanor can be imprisoned in county jail for up to 364 days.


Under California Penal Code § 17, crimes and public offenses that fall under the following sections, as well as other offenses the Legislature makes subject to this law are classified as infractions:

  • Penal Code § 193.8
  • Penal Code § 330
  • Penal Code § 415
  • Penal Code § 485
  • Penal Code § 490.7
  • Penal Code § 555
  • Penal Code § 602.13
  • Penal Code § 853.7
  • Penal Code § 532b (c)
  • Penal Code § 602 (o)
  • Business and Professions Code § 25658
  • Business and Professions Code § 21672
  • Business and Professions Code § 25661
  • Business and Professions Code § 25662
  • Government Code § 27204
  • Vehicle Code § 23109 (c)
  • Vehicle Code § 5201.1
  • Vehicle Code § 12500
  • Vehicle Code § 14601.1
  • Vehicle Code § 27150.1
  • Vehicle Code § 40508
  • Vehicle Code § 42005

Infraction Sentencing in California

Under California Penal Code § 19.8, someone convicted of an infraction cannot be imprisoned and is not entitled to a jury trial, and can be punished with a fine not exceeding $250,000.


Except in cases where the crime can be punished with life in prison, California lawmakers have set three terms someone can be punished with if convicted with a crime, high-term sentence, mid-term sentence, and low-term sentence. Most states’ laws set ranges for how long someone can be imprisoned, but in California, it is up to the judge to determine which specific sentence to choose rather than choosing a term range.

Each type of felony has a different set of term sentences – crimes that are classified as serious felony crimes can be found in California Penal Code Section § 1192.7 and California Penal Code Section § 1192.8, and crimes that are classified as violent felony crimes can be found in California Penal Code Section § 667.5.

If no punishment for the particular felony has been set, the person convicted of the crime can be sentenced to 16 months, two years, or three years in prison, as well as fined.

Three Strikes Law

Under California’s Three Strikes law, someone convicted of any felony after being convicted of at least two serious or violent felony crimes can be sentenced to state prison for a term of 25 years to life.


Under California law, crimes that can either be classified as a misdemeanor or as a felony are considered “wobblers”. This can depend on how the judge decides to treat the conviction or on how the crime was charged. A large number of crimes in California are considered wobblers, including crimes such as embezzlement, receiving stolen property, vandalism, and aggravated criminal trespass(601 PC), and many others.

Because wobblers exist, there may be options for defendants to seek reduced charges and penalties when facing “wobbler” charges. Depending on the case, this approach may help defendants avoid far more serious penalties, including prison time, professional licensing sanctions, mandatory registration, and more.

Contact a Criminal Defense Lawyer in San Diego

If you were charged with a crime, the most important thing you can do is seek legal representation as soon as possible. The quicker you hire the help you need, the more options you may have available to you. Our San Diego criminal defense attorneys at Premier Criminal Defense, LLC have worked with thousands of individuals charged with all types of crimes, and have the experience and deep understanding of the law you can count on. Call our firm at (619) 304-9190 today to discuss your legal options over the phone, or send us the details of your case through our online form.

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