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Can You Go to Jail for a Misdemeanor in California?

Getting charged with a misdemeanor in California can be scary. Will you go to jail? How much time could you face behind bars?

The good news is that for most first-time misdemeanor offenses, jail time is part of your “exposure” but there are many ways a skilled criminal defense attorney can negotiate alternatives to custodial sentencing. Technically, under California law, a conviction of a misdemeanor offense could land you in jail even for a minor crime. Misdemeanor crimes tend to carry an exposure of up to one year in county jail. Here’s what you need to know about misdemeanors, jail sentences, and strategies to avoid incarceration in California.

What is a Misdemeanor Under California Law?

Under California law, a misdemeanor is generally defined as a crime punishable by up to 1 year in county jail. This contrasts with felony offenses in California, which can result in state prison time.

Common misdemeanor crimes charged in California include petty theft, vandalism, simple assault, battery, disorderly conduct, prostitution, domestic battery, contempt, resisting arrest, child endangerment, and trespassing. Many traffic violations are also charged as misdemeanors such as DUIs, reckless driving, evading, hit and run, driving on a suspended license, driving without a license, and joyriding.

California also has some “wobbler” offenses that can be punished as either a misdemeanor or felony. These include crimes like domestic violence, possession of stolen property, grand theft, child abuse, embezzlement and fraud.

Factors That Determine Potential Jail Time in California

In California, several key factors influence whether a misdemeanor charge will result in jail time:

  • The specific misdemeanor offense and circumstances
  • Resulting injuries from crime and the severity of those injuries
  • Your criminal history
  • Mitigating and aggravating factors
  • Statutory mandatory minimum requirements
  • Negotiations with the District Attorney
  • The judge’s acceptance of a negotiated resolution

California follows statewide sentencing guidelines. However, District Attorney Offices in individual counties have latitude when establishing their internal policies for negotiations and judges have discretion when imposing a misdemeanor sentence within the maximums defined in law.

Typical Jail Time for First-Time Misdemeanor Offenders

For many first-time misdemeanor offenses in California, judges will impose probation, community service, fines, or classes instead of jail time. The maximum sentence for misdemeanors is one year in county jail. But incarceration for the full year is rare, especially for minor first offenses.

There are some exceptions under California law that can result in jail time even on a first-offense misdemeanor. For example, a first DUI conviction carries a mandatory jail sentence of 96 hours; however, a criminal defense attorney can secure custodial alternatives to jail to meet this requirement.

How to Avoid Jail Time for a California Misdemeanor

If you’re facing a misdemeanor charge in California, taking it seriously and engaging an attorney is key to avoiding jail time.

Specific strategies include:

  • Hiring an experienced criminal defense lawyer to advocate for you
  • Attempting to plea bargain for reduced charges or alternative offenses
  • Negotiating probation terms
  • Committing to rehabilitation
  • Filing pretrial motions to attack the strength of the evidence
  • Enrolling in collaborative court options to secure resolutions that lead to dismissals

Alternatives like California’s deferred prosecution or deferred entry of judgment options can also help first-time offenders avoid jail. Participating in pretrial diversion, drug courts, veteran’s court, mental health court or other specialty courts may also prevent incarceration.

What to Expect if Sentenced to Misdemeanor Jail Time

If a California judge does sentence you to jail for a misdemeanor, you’ll serve time in county jail rather than state prison and you will likely be eligible for half time pursuant to Penal Code section 4019. Work release, house arrest, or electronic monitoring might be allowed instead of incarceration, depending on the county.

Having a misdemeanor on your record can negatively impact your life well beyond the jail term, ranging from immigration consequences, family law issues, and other collateral effects. That’s why options like record expungement (petitions to dismiss convictions) are so valuable. For most misdemeanors, your California criminal record can be cleaned up after you have successfully completed probation.

Don’t Wait to Address Your California Misdemeanor Charge

Being proactive is key to avoiding jail time for a California misdemeanor charge. Immediately consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Adhere closely to all probation terms if imposed. And be prepared to perform community service and make amends for your actions.

To discuss your misdemeanor case in a consultation, contact The Nieves Law Firm today. Our California criminal defense attorneys have the experience to build a strong defense to fight for your freedom.

Contact us today.

Author Bio

Jose Headshot

Jose Gonzalez is an attorney at The Nieves Law Firm, having joined the firm in September of 2022. Jose is bilingual and assists both English and Spanish speakers who contact The Nieves Law Firm for legal assistance. He has previous experience working as a Public Defender in Northern California, which he credits with providing him ample experience in criminal defense law and helping to develop his skills in the courtroom.

Jose received his law degree from Santa Clara University School of Law with an emphasis on criminal justice and is a member of the State Bar of California. Prior to graduating law school, Jose interned with the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) and was able to exonerate an innocent person who spent over 15 years incarcerated.

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