Goals to be Achieved by Sentencing

The sentence imposed for a felony in California is determined by a complex combination of the California Penal Code, the California Rules of Court, and the trial judge’s discretion. For guidance in sentencing, California has set out the factors or goals that a judge must consider before imposing a sentence:

  • Protecting society
  • Punishing the defendant
  • Encouraging the defendant to lead a law-abiding life in the future and deterring him or her from future offenses
  • Deterring others from criminal conduct by demonstrating its consequences
  • Preventing the defendant from committing new crimes by isolating him or her for the period of incarceration
  • Securing restitution for the victims of crime
  • Achieving uniformity in sentencing
  • Increasing public safety by reducing recidivism through community-based corrections programs and evidence-based practices

The Penal Code itself states that “the purpose of sentencing is public safety achieved through punishment, rehabilitation, and restorative justice.” If a sentence includes incarceration, the purpose is served by assigning terms that are proportionate to the seriousness of the offense and that provide for uniformity in the sentences of offenders committing the same offense under similar circumstances.

  1. Goals to be Achieved by Sentencing
  2. Prescribed Sentences
  3. Sentencing Considerations: Mitigating and Aggravating Circumstances
  4. State Prison or County Jail?
  5. Sentence Enhancements
  6. Felonies Not Eligible for Probation
  7. Felonies Presumptively Ineligible for Probation
  8. Probation Presumptively Allowed
  9. Understanding California’s Sentencing Laws

Prescribed Sentences

Most felony offenses defined by the California Penal Code have prescribed sentences that apply. In most cases, three possible sentences are specified. For instance, the following felonies carry the following sentences:

  • Burglary in the first degree: imprisonment in the state prison for two, four, or six years
  • Rape: imprisonment in the state prison for three, six, or eight years
  • Murder in the first degree: death, imprisonment in the state prison for life without the possibility of parole, or imprisonment in the state prison for a term of 25 years to life
  • Kidnapping: imprisonment in the state prison for three, five, or eight years

Sometimes the prescribed sentence depends on the level of severity of the offense, as in the case of arson:

  • Arson that causes great bodily injury: imprisonment in the state prison for five, seven, or nine years
  • Arson that causes an inhabited structure or inhabited property to burn: imprisonment in the state prison for three, five, or eight years
  • Arson of a structure or forest land: imprisonment in the state prison for two, four, or six years

If the statute does not specify a particular term, sentencing terms default to sixteen months, two years, or three years.

The Penal Code states that when three possible sentences are available, the court “shall sentence the defendant to one of the terms of imprisonment specified,” unless the trial court imposes another sentence allowed by California law, such as a fine, probation, or the suspension of execution of sentence. Which term to impose upon a particular defendant is within the discretion of the court.

  1. Goals to be Achieved by Sentencing
  2. Prescribed Sentences
  3. Sentencing Considerations: Mitigating and Aggravating Circumstances
  4. State Prison or County Jail?
  5. Sentence Enhancements
  6. Felonies Not Eligible for Probation
  7. Felonies Presumptively Ineligible for Probation
  8. Probation Presumptively Allowed
  9. Understanding California’s Sentencing Laws

Sentencing Considerations: Mitigating and Aggravating Circumstances

California law allows a judge to consider mitigating circumstances and aggravating circumstances to determine which of the three statutory sentences to impose. Mitigating circumstances may reduce the sentence that the judge imposes, while the existence of aggravating circumstances may cause the judge to impose the upper limit of sentencing.

Mitigating circumstances include factors relating to the crime or to the defendant, such as:

  • The defendant was a passive participant or played a minor role in the crime.
  • The victim was an initiator of, willing participant in, or aggressor or provoker of, the incident leading to the felony conviction.
  • The crime was committed because of an unusual circumstance, such as great provocation, that is unlikely to recur.
  • The defendant participated in the crime under circumstances of coercion or duress, or the criminal conduct was partially excusable for some other reason not amounting to a defense.
  • The defendant, with no apparent predisposition to do so, was induced by others to participate in the crime.
  • The defendant exercised caution to avoid harm to persons or damage to property, or the amount of money or property taken was deliberately small, or no harm was done or threatened against the victim.
  • The defendant believed that he or she had a claim or right to the property taken, or for other reasons mistakenly believed that the conduct was legal.
  • The defendant was motivated by a desire to provide necessities for his or her family or self.
  • The defendant suffered from repeated or continuous physical, sexual, or psychological abuse inflicted by the victim of the crime; the victim of the crime, who inflicted the abuse, was the defendant’s spouse, intimate cohabitant, or parent of the defendant’s child; and the abuse does not amount to a defense.
  • The defendant has no prior record, or has an insignificant record of criminal conduct, considering the recency and frequency of prior crimes.
  • The defendant was suffering from a mental or physical condition that significantly reduced culpability for the crime.
  • The defendant voluntarily acknowledged wrongdoing before arrest or at an early stage of the criminal process.
  • The defendant made restitution to the victim.
  • The defendant’s satisfactorily completed probation, mandatory supervision, post-release community supervision, or parole.

Factors in aggravation include factors relating to the crime or the defendant, such as:

  • The crime involved great violence, great bodily harm, threat of great bodily harm, or other acts with a high degree of cruelty, viciousness, or callousness.
  • The defendant was armed with or used a weapon at the time of the commission of the crime.
  • The victim was particularly vulnerable.
  • The defendant induced others to participate in the commission of the crime or occupied a position of leadership or dominance of other participants in its commission.
  • The defendant induced a minor to commit or assist in the commission of the crime.
  • The defendant threatened witnesses, unlawfully prevented or dissuaded witnesses from testifying, suborned perjury, or in any other way illegally interfered with the judicial process.
  • The defendant was convicted of other offenses for which consecutive sentences could have been imposed but for which concurrent sentences are being imposed.
  • The manner in which the crime was carried out indicates planning or sophistication.
  • The crime involved an attempted or actual taking or damage of great monetary value.
  • The crime involved a large quantity of contraband.
  • The defendant took advantage of a position of trust or confidence to commit the offense.
  • The crime constitutes a hate crime.
  1. Goals to be Achieved by Sentencing
  2. Prescribed Sentences
  3. Sentencing Considerations: Mitigating and Aggravating Circumstances
  4. State Prison or County Jail?
  5. Sentence Enhancements
  6. Felonies Not Eligible for Probation
  7. Felonies Presumptively Ineligible for Probation
  8. Probation Presumptively Allowed
  9. Understanding California’s Sentencing Laws

State Prison or County Jail?

Most statutes defining a felony offense specify imprisonment for the offense. California law requires that felons serve their sentences in county jail rather than state prison unless

  • he or she was convicted of a “serious” or “violent” felony either in the present case or in a past conviction
  • he or she has to register as a sex offender as a result of the current conviction
  • he or she was convicted of a crime that included an enhancement for an aggravated white collar crime

However, if the offense for which a defendant is convicted requires enhancement of the sentence, as described below, the entire sentence must be served in state prison.

  1. Goals to be Achieved by Sentencing
  2. Prescribed Sentences
  3. Sentencing Considerations: Mitigating and Aggravating Circumstances
  4. State Prison or County Jail?
  5. Sentence Enhancements
  6. Felonies Not Eligible for Probation
  7. Felonies Presumptively Ineligible for Probation
  8. Probation Presumptively Allowed
  9. Understanding California’s Sentencing Laws

Sentence Enhancements

In addition to the sentences spelled out in the definition of a felony, the sentence must be “enhanced” or increased for certain offenses. An enhancement, unlike an aggravating factor, must be charged by the prosecution and proven at trial beyond a reasonable doubt. When the prosecution succeeds in proving the existence of facts warranting an enhancement, the sentence must be enhanced.

For example, if a defendant is convicted of murder and the prosecution also proves that the murder was committed by discharging a firearm, the defendant, in addition to the term set by the judge, must serve a consecutive sentence of twenty-five years to life in state prison for the offense. The sentence for an offense may also be enhanced if the offense was a gang-related crime, if the crime is classified as a hate crime, or if the conviction constitutes a second- or third-strike under California’s three-strike law.

  1. Goals to be Achieved by Sentencing
  2. Prescribed Sentences
  3. Sentencing Considerations: Mitigating and Aggravating Circumstances
  4. State Prison or County Jail?
  5. Sentence Enhancements
  6. Felonies Not Eligible for Probation
  7. Felonies Presumptively Ineligible for Probation
  8. Probation Presumptively Allowed
  9. Understanding California’s Sentencing Laws

Felonies Not Eligible for Probation

Instead of imposing incarceration as a sentence, a judge may sentence a defendant to probation. Not all defendants are eligible for probation.

For example, if a defendant is convicted of a felony and has a prior conviction for either a violent felony or a serious felony as defined by California law, that defendant is not eligible for probation. The judge cannot order probation for the present felony conviction.

California law currently includes forty-two “serious” felonies, including murder, voluntary manslaughter, mayhem, certain sex offenses, kidnapping, holding a person hostage, and bank robbery. “Violent” felonies include many of the same offenses California law defines as “serious” felonies, and includes murder, rape, arson, carjacking, and threats to trial witnesses.

Additionally, a defendant convicted of a serious felony or a violent felony as defined by California law while on a felony probation cannot again be sentenced to probation.

  1. Goals to be Achieved by Sentencing
  2. Prescribed Sentences
  3. Sentencing Considerations: Mitigating and Aggravating Circumstances
  4. State Prison or County Jail?
  5. Sentence Enhancements
  6. Felonies Not Eligible for Probation
  7. Felonies Presumptively Ineligible for Probation
  8. Probation Presumptively Allowed
  9. Understanding California’s Sentencing Laws

Felonies Presumptively Ineligible for Probation

Other felonies are presumptively ineligible for probation. These felonies include:

  • an offense that inflicted great bodily injury on the victim
  • an offense involving use of a deadly weapon
  • an offense that hurt or killed someone in a drive-by shooting
  • an offense that involved the furnishing of PCP

Additionally, a person convicted of a felony who has a prior non-violent or non-serious felony is presumptively ineligible for probation.

However, though probation is presumptively prohibited, the judge may sentence a defendant to probation “in unusual cases where the interests of justice would best be served.” Factors or circumstances that would support a judge’s decision to grant probation instead of a prison term include the following:

  • The circumstances that support limiting the availability of probation for the particular offense are substantially less serious than the circumstances typically present in the commission of the offense, and the defendant has no recent record of committing similar crimes or crimes of violence.
  • If the limitation on probation is based on a prior felony conviction, the current offense is less serious than the prior felony and the defendant has been free from incarceration and serious violation of the law for a substantial time before the current offense.
  • The defendant has reduced culpability because:
    • The defendant committed the offense due to great provocation, coercion or duress and has no recent record of committing crimes of violence.
    • The offense was committed because of a mental condition and a high likelihood exists that the defendant would respond to mental health care.
    • The defendant is either youthful or aged and does not have a significant record of prior criminal offenses.
  • The judge, in his or her discretion, determines that the results of a risk/needs assessment of the defendant indicate that probation is appropriate.

Once the presumption of ineligibility is overcome, the judge considers mitigating or aggravating circumstances, as described below, in granting or denying probation.

  1. Goals to be Achieved by Sentencing
  2. Prescribed Sentences
  3. Sentencing Considerations: Mitigating and Aggravating Circumstances
  4. State Prison or County Jail?
  5. Sentence Enhancements
  6. Felonies Not Eligible for Probation
  7. Felonies Presumptively Ineligible for Probation
  8. Probation Presumptively Allowed
  9. Understanding California’s Sentencing Laws

Probation Presumptively Allowed

In all other cases, probation is presumptively allowed but is within the discretion of the judge. In granting or denying probation, the court may consider the defendant’s criminal history and the severity of the crime as well as mitigating and aggravating circumstances.

  1. Goals to be Achieved by Sentencing
  2. Prescribed Sentences
  3. Sentencing Considerations: Mitigating and Aggravating Circumstances
  4. State Prison or County Jail?
  5. Sentence Enhancements
  6. Felonies Not Eligible for Probation
  7. Felonies Presumptively Ineligible for Probation
  8. Probation Presumptively Allowed
  9. Understanding California’s Sentencing Laws

Understanding California’s Sentencing Laws

Sentencing for an offense under California law is a complex blend of statutory requirements and judicial discretion. While the sentence for an offense may be set by statute to one of three terms, how the defendant is ultimately sentenced depends on whether the sentence must be enhanced, the existence of mitigating or aggravating circumstances, and the sound judgment of the court. To ensure that sentencing is within the law and satisfies the goals to be achieved by sentencing, a defendant must have an experienced criminal attorney evaluate the sentence. Otherwise, a defendant may be faced with a longer or more serious sentence than the conviction requires.