Complete Guide to Classification of Felonies in California



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What Is a Felony?

In California, a felony is a type of criminal offense that is more serious than a misdemeanor. It is punishable by more severe penalties, including imprisonment in California state prison.

Felony crimes are classified into different categories based on their severity. Usually, the specific penalties for felony convictions can vary depending on various factors.

The consequences of a felony conviction can significantly impact your life, and the best way to prepare your defense is to understand what exactly you have been accused of and the consequences that will follow. You may also need the help of a criminal lawyer in Oakland to get the best outcome for your case.

In this article, our lawyers explain everything you need to know about felonies under California law.

What Is the Difference Between a Felony and a Misdemeanor?

Felonies are serious criminal offenses. Under the California penal code, it is a crime punishable by more than one year in prison.

In comparison, misdemeanors are less serious offenses. Misdemeanor crimes are typically punished with fines and a maximum of 12 months in county jail.

However, the line between felony crimes and misdemeanors is not always clear-cut. Some offenses, known as wobbler offenses, qualify as both misdemeanors and felony offenses. The prosecution must decide whether to charge the crime as a felony or a misdemeanor in such circumstances.

Felony Classification

Under California Penal Code 17(a), there are multiple types of felonies you could be charged with. However, unlike other states, California does not use the class A-C or 1-4 system. Instead, felony crimes in California are classified based on severity as follows:

Criminal Intent

Criminal intent is a crucial element in felony crimes in California. It refers to the defendant’s mind when the crime was committed.

Some felonies require a specific intent. This means the defendant must have intended to commit the offense with a particular purpose. For example, first-degree murder typically requires premeditation and intent to kill.

Other felonies require only a general intent. For example, armed robbery does not require a specific purpose.

Severity of Offense

The severity of an offense is often determined by

  • The potential harm caused by the offense
  • The level of violence involved
  • The impact on victims and society

Statutory Classification

According to the California Penal Code, a felony conviction can either be a straight or wobbler felony.

Straight Felonies

Straight felonies are the most severe crime and will count as strikes under the state’s three-strike law. The following are examples of crimes that are considered to be direct felonies:

  • First-degree armed robbery
  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Sale of a Schedule I or II drug
  • Lewd actions with a child under 14

If you are facing a straight felony conviction, like a drug offense, you may need a drug lawyer.


Not every felony is a clear felony. Some are considered to be unstable. A wobbler offense is one that, at the discretion of the state’s prosecutor, can be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or felony.

The prosecutor will evaluate the specifics of your case to determine whether you should be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony. The following are examples of offenses that qualify as “wobbler” felonies:

  • Sexual assault
  • Assault with a lethal weapon
  • Acts of vandalism
  • Forgery
  • Family violence

If you are facing a wobbler conviction, call a restraining order lawyer from our firm for assistance.


Prior Convictions

Prior convictions can affect California felony charges. California uses the three strikes laws in this regard. Under California’s Three Strikes Law, punishments progress as follows:

  • The standard statutory penalty for a first serious or violent felony
  • The mandatory sentence for a second serious or violent felony is double the statutory penalty.
  • The third serious or violent felony carries a 25-year to life sentence.

What Is the Sentence of a Felony in California

Most California felony crimes have three types of prison sentences. These include:

  • An upper-term sentence (such as eight years for rape).

  • A middle-term (such as six years for rape)

  • A lower sentence (such as three years for rape).

When the criminal statutes do not specify a range of penalties, these default sentences are used. In such cases, someone convicted of a felony can be sentenced to 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years.

How Are Felony Sentences Determined?

For most felony offenses, a California judge can only impose the middle term. However, the California penal code allows the judge to impose an upper-term sentence if there are aggravating factors.

To impose a high term of imprisonment, aggravating factors must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. These factors may even lead to the imposition of life imprisonment or the death penalty.

Similarly, sentences can be reduced to a lower term if there are mitigating factors. A judge may consider mitigating factors in sentencing under California Rules of Court Rule 4.423. Important mitigating factors that may reduce sentence include:

  • The defendant was under 26 when the offense occurred.

  • The person has suffered childhood, psychological, or physical trauma.

  • Domestic violence or human trafficking victims before or during the offense.

Other mitigating considerations can also help the judge impose a short term. Mitigating considerations don’t need a jury or proof, unlike aggravating factors. A drug lawyer will examine your case and identify any mitigating factors. They will then use this information to build a stronger defense and minimize potential penalties.

Felony Probation

In most criminal instances, the guilty offender may receive probation instead of jail time. If a felony judge grants probation, the offender may serve up to a year in county jail and must fulfill many probation conditions. Some of these conditions may include:

  • Monthly meetings with a probation officer

  • Drug and alcohol testing

  • Drug or alcohol treatment

  • Community service hours

  • Anger management programs

  • Therapy

  • Restitution and other conditions may apply depending on the offense.

The judge can revoke felony probation and send the offender to prison for the maximum punishment if there is a probation violation. The judge could also extend probation and impose harsher conditions.

California felony convictions have many secondary repercussions. Individuals must disclose their felonies to prospective and current employers. Also, they are prohibited from working in certain occupations, which can affect their employment prospects.

When applying for a state license, they must disclose any felony convictions. They cannot vote, serve on a jury, or possess firearms. Those convicted of sex offenses must register in the California Sex Offender Registry.

Can a Felony Conviction Be Expunged?

Legal expungement removes or mitigates certain offenses from the record in California.

The Penal Code 1203.4 PC allows defendants convicted of felonies or misdemeanors who meet the prison sentence and probation requirements to have their records expunged. The expungement process will result in the reopening of your case, and the dismissal of your guilty plea or guilty verdict.

Expungement releases the defendant from “all penalties and disabilities” resulting from the conviction. Expungement alters your criminal record to read “dismissed in the interests of justice,” even though a criminal record cannot be completely erased in California.

After the expungement process, the defendant can legally state that they have not committed a crime and that their conviction has been expunged. The records of the expunged conviction will also be sealed from public view.

Speak With Our Attorneys

Felony convictions can have lasting consequences, impacting employment prospects and firearms ownership. As such, legal guidance from a skilled attorney is essential for individuals facing felony charges in California.

Whether you have previous encounters with the law or are a first-time offender (felony) in California, the Law Office of Rebecca Feigelson can help. You are welcome to contact us to discuss your case.

We represent clients accused of a multitude of crimes, and we may be able to help you, too. Schedule a free consultation with a white-collar crimes defense attorney today. We look forward to hearing from you!