What is the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony Offense in California?

January 13, 2024

In California, understanding the distinction between felony and misdemeanor charges is crucial, as these classifications carry significantly different legal implications and consequences. This article aims to elucidate the primary differences between these two types of criminal charges.

Definition and Severity

  • Misdemeanors: These are less severe offenses compared to felonies. Common examples include petty theft, simple assault, and first-time DUI without injury. In California, misdemeanors are punishable by up to one year in county jail.

  • Felonies: These are more serious crimes, such as murder, rape, and robbery. Felonies in California are punishable by imprisonment for more than one year and can result in serving time in state prison.

Legal Procedures and Trials

  • Misdemeanor Trials: Typically, these cases are quicker and may not always require a jury trial. Defendants charged with misdemeanors have the right to a speedy trial, which in California means the trial must commence within 30 days if the defendant is in custody, or 45 days if not.

  • Felony Trials: These cases often involve more complex legal procedures, including preliminary hearings to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed to trial. The right to a speedy trial for felonies in California means the trial must start within 60 days of the arraignment.

Sentencing and Penalties

  • Misdemeanors: Sentences for misdemeanors are typically served in county jails and can include fines, probation, community service, and/or restitution. The maximum jail term is one year.

  • Felonies: Sentences for felonies can be much more severe, including longer prison terms, heavier fines, and more stringent probation conditions. Felony convictions can also lead to loss of certain civil rights, like voting or possessing firearms.

Impact on Criminal Record

  • Misdemeanor Record: While a misdemeanor conviction does go on one’s criminal record, it is generally viewed less harshly than a felony. Certain misdemeanors can be expunged under specific conditions, allowing the individual to legally state they have not been convicted of that crime.

  • Felony Record: A felony conviction has a more significant and lasting impact on a person’s criminal record. It can affect employment opportunities, housing, and eligibility for certain professional licenses. Some felonies can be reduced to misdemeanors under certain circumstances, which is beneficial for the defendant.

Bail Considerations

  • Misdemeanors: Generally, bail amounts for misdemeanors are lower compared to felonies. In some cases, individuals charged with misdemeanors can be released on their own recognizance.

  • Felonies: Bail for felony charges is typically higher, reflecting the greater severity of the crime. In serious cases, bail may be denied altogether.

Probation and Parole

  • Misdemeanor Probation: Often called “summary” or “informal” probation, it doesn’t require regular meetings with a probation officer but does require adherence to certain conditions set by the court.

  • Felony Probation and Parole: Felony probation is more stringent, often involving supervision by a probation officer (“formal” probation). After serving time in prison for a felony, an individual may be released on parole, which involves close monitoring and various restrictions.


The distinction between felony and misdemeanor charges in California is marked by differences in severity, legal proceedings, sentencing, and the long-term impact on an individual’s life. Understanding these differences is crucial for anyone navigating the criminal justice system in California, whether as a defendant, legal professional, or a member of the community seeking to understand how the system works.

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