Call Today! Free Immediate Response (818) 781-1570


Determinate vs. Indeterminate Sentencing

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | May 03, 2024

If you're convicted of a crime in California, state law is usually quite specific regarding its sentencing guidelines. The judge pronounces a sentence according to the guidelines, which is the time you typically serve. 

However, there are other times, mainly with severe offenses, when sentencing may be "open-ended" with a mandatory minimum, and a parole board will ultimately decide when (or if) you're ready to be released. This is the difference between determinate sentencing and indeterminate sentencing. 

Determinate vs. Indeterminate Sentencing in California
California is a determinate sentencing state, but an indeterminate sentence can be used.

Determinate sentencing is a sentence upon conviction of a criminal charge with a set amount of jail time. A parole board or any other agency cannot change the sentence. Determinate sentencing does not give judges as much discretion. 

However, the judge's role in determining the sentence is of utmost importance, as they are the ones who set the course of your incarceration. However, depending on the statute, the court might still play an essential role in determining sentencing. The judge may hand down three possible sentence lengths for many crimes.

An indeterminate sentence consists of a range of years, such as 25 years to life. Although there is always a minimum prison term, the release date is uncertain and might be determined by the parole board in its periodic case review.

Parole boards hold hearings to determine when a convicted person is eligible for parole during the range of the sentence. Indeterminate sentencing is typically used for serious felony offenses punishable by a term in state prison and not usually for less serious crimes. This underscores the severity of the crimes that lead to indeterminate sentencing.

Indeterminate sentencing is based on the theory that state prisons will rehabilitate some offenders, and the prospect of early release gives prisoners an incentive for good conduct. Let's discuss the difference between these sentencing types and how they work under California law.

How Does Sentencing Work in California?

The judge will impose a sentence if you plead guilty to a criminal charge or are found guilty after a trial. The prosecution and the defendant have the legal right to request a sentencing hearing

How Does Sentencing Work in California?

For a misdemeanor offense, this hearing must be held at least six hours after conviction and no more than five days after entry of a guilty or no-contest plea or a trial verdict. For a felony offense, the sentencing hearing must be set within 20 days of a guilty plea or trial verdict.

This hearing allows the defense to argue for a reduced sentence, while the district attorney will typically argue against it or for increased penalties.

Rules of evidence are often relaxed in sentencing hearings, which might allow the prosecution to rely on evidence unavailable during trial. 

The judge must abide by specific sentencing guidelines. Most misdemeanors carry indeterminate sentences of up to six months, and most felony offenses have determinate sentencing, with three different possible sentences.

What is Determinate Sentencing?

Determinate sentencing is a fixed sentencing scheme where the court imposes a specified period of incarceration with a clearly defined release date. 

The determinate sentencing law (DSL) specifies minimum and maximum sentence ranges for each offense. The court determines the exact duration within these parameters based on the circumstances of the case. The sentence length is firm, with no parole board discretion for early release based on behavior or rehabilitation.

In 1976, California transitioned from a predominantly indeterminate sentence structure to a determinate sentencing law (DSL). This significant legal shift aimed to create more predictable and uniform sentencing practices across the state. 

The change was driven by criticisms of the previous system's perceived leniency and lack of consistency in sentencing decisions, which were often viewed as subjective and unfairly influenced by factors unrelated to the crime itself.

What is Indeterminate Sentencing?

Indeterminate sentencing, however, allows for a range in the length of the sentence imposed versus a specific length of time.

For example, a sentence might be expressed as "15 years to life," meaning the convicted individual will spend at least 15 years in prison but could potentially remain incarcerated for life, depending on parole board decisions. 

This type of sentencing is often used for more serious crimes. It relies heavily on the judgments of parole boards and assesses the inmate's rehabilitation progress and potential risk to society.

How Does Determinate Sentencing Work in California?

Under California's DSL, sentences for most criminal offenses are fixed by statute. The law specifies minimum and maximum terms for each offense, giving judges limited discretion in determining the exact length of a sentence within these statutory boundaries.

This model is intended to enhance fairness and transparency by standardizing punishments that fit the crime, thus reducing disparities in sentencing.

  • Structured Sentences: Each category of crime has a designated sentencing range. Misdemeanors typically are defined only by a maximum sentence, and the judge may choose a specific sentence length up to that maximum. For most felony offenses, three possible sentence lengths are prescribed (e.g., 18 months, two years, or three years), and the judge selects one of these options based on the severity of the crime and the defendant's criminal history.
  • Enhancements: In some instances, the primary term can be extended due to specific aggravating factors, like using a firearm during the commission of a crime, which is stipulated by law.
  • Reductions: Similarly, mitigating circumstances can lead to sentence reductions, although these are less common under the determinate system than the indeterminate system.

When Does Indeterminate Sentencing Still Apply?

Despite the general shift to a determinate system, indeterminate sentences still apply under certain circumstances in California. Most of these are expressed a minimum amount up to life in prison (e.g., 25 years to life), with or without the possibility of parole.

After the minimum sentence is served, the defendant's release depends primarily on periodic reviews by the parole board. Sometimes, a defendant may be released before the minimum threshold, but typically only after 85 percent of the sentence has been served. In California, indeterminate sentencing is generally reserved for the following:

  • Serious and Violent Offenses: Indeterminate sentences are typically reserved for the most severe crimes, including murder and some sex offenses, where public safety is a paramount concern.
  • Third-Strike Offenses: Under California's "three strikes" law, individuals convicted of their third qualifying serious offense automatically receive the indeterminate sentence of 25 years to life.

Understanding the nuances between determinate and indeterminate sentencing in California is crucial for anyone navigating the criminal justice system. While most crimes are now subject to determinate sentencing, which offers more predictability and uniformity, indeterminate sentencing still plays a role in severe offenses.

Ultimately, a skilled California criminal defense attorney is your best option for negotiating leniency in sentencing. Contact us for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.

Related Content:

About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

We speak English, Russian, Armenian, and Spanish.

If you have one phone call from jail, call us! If you are facing criminal charges, DON'T talk to the police first. TALK TO US!

Anytime 24/7