The Los Angeles Criminal Law Blog

The Difference Between Felonies and Misdemeanors in California

The difference between a felony and misdemeanor charge can be significant because California, like other states, divides the categories based on length of imprisonment.

Under state law certain crimes are always felonies, others are always misdemeanors, and some are known as "wobblers." Those wobbler crimes can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor at the discretion of prosecutors. What they choose will limit the maximum punishment.

So what exactly is the dividing line between a misdemeanor and a felony?

Well the first difference in California is where a convicted criminal will be kept during his or her sentence. Misdemeanors result in jail time at the county jail, while felons are imprisoned at a state prison.

That's because felony sentences are always longer than those for a misdemeanor. Local jails generally don't have the resources to house convicts for that long.

Under state law, a misdemeanor is a crime punishable by a maximum of one year in jail. Sentences may also include a fine.

While some misdemeanors have mandatory minimums for incarceration, many of them don't require convicted criminals to spend any time behind bars. In those cases, the punishment may be probation, community service, or a fine.

As for felonies, they carry a minimum punishment of one year in state prison. But depending on the crime, the sentence can be as long as life in prison, or even the death penalty.

Unlike other states, California doesn't divide its crimes into classes or degrees. There's only one kind of misdemeanor and one kind of felony.

That means the crime charged is what narrows down the potential punishment. California law has sentencing ranges for each defined crime.

When a jury determines sentencing, they must pick a punishment that falls within the range suggested for the crime. For wobbler crimes, the guidelines change based on whether it's charged as a felony or a misdemeanor.

Talking to an experienced Los Angeles criminal defense attorney can give you a better idea of the potential sentence if you're charged with a crime. But at least you can get an idea of the possibilities if you know whether you were charged with a crime or a misdemeanor.

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