Synopsis of Calculating a Criminal Sentence in California

January 16, 2024

In California, understanding how prison sentences are calculated can be complex, especially with the nuances of the state’s Three Strikes law and various categories of felonies. The calculation of a prison sentence depends on the nature of the felony committed, whether it’s categorized as a serious or violent felony and other specific circumstances of the case. Let’s break down how these sentences are generally calculated and the roles of the sentencing judge and the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) in this process.

The Basic Framework of Sentence Calculation

  1. Serious Felonies: Generally, a defendant convicted of a serious felony in California is required to complete about 50% of their sentence. Serious felonies are specified under California law and can include certain sex offenses, firearms, and threats.

  2. Violent Felonies: In contrast, defendants convicted of a violent felony are typically required to serve approximately 85% of their sentence. Violent felonies usually involve physical harm or the threat of harm to others and include crimes like murder, rape, and robbery.

The Three Strikes Law and Strike Offenses

  • Strike Offenses: Not all felonies are considered strike offenses. Serious or violent felonies, however, are categorized as “strike” offenses under California’s Three Strikes law. The law significantly impacts the sentencing for repeat offenders.

  • Effect of a Strike Offense: If a defendant has a previous serious felony strike and commits a subsequent felony (even one that does not constitute a strike), they will serve approximately 80% of the sentence for the new felony.

  • Doubling of Sentence: For a defendant with a prior strike who commits a new felony, their prison sentence for the new felony will be doubled.

The Role of the Sentencing Judge

The sentencing judge plays a crucial role in determining the breakdown of a prison sentence. This decision is made based on the nature of the crime, the defendant’s criminal history, and other factors relevant to the case. The judge has the discretion to decide the length of the sentence within the statutory limits and guidelines set by California law.

Review and Adjustment by the CDCR

Once the sentence is handed down by the judge, it is subsequently reviewed by the CDCR. The CDCR’s role is to ensure that the sentence complies with the legal guidelines and calculations. If there is any disparity or inconsistency in the sentencing order, the CDCR is likely to request that the trial court revisit and possibly revise its sentencing order. This step is crucial to ensure that all sentences are consistent with the legal standards and calculations set forth by California law.


Understanding how prison sentences are calculated in California requires a grasp of the various types of felonies and the impact of the state’s Three Strikes law. The precise calculation of any given sentence depends on a complex interplay of factors, including the nature of the offense, the defendant’s criminal history, and judicial discretion. The subsequent review by the CDCR ensures that sentences are correctly calculated and consistent with legal standards. As such, both the sentencing judge and the CDCR play pivotal roles in shaping the outcome of a defendant’s prison term in California. For anyone facing felony charges, it’s crucial to understand these nuances, as they significantly affect the length of time one might spend in prison.

If you are charged with a felony offense, then contact the Law Offices of John D. Rogers to schedule a consultation with an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney.

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