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Key Criminal Justice Terms

Appellate Court: A court that hears cases on appeal from a superior court. There are six appellate court districts in California.

Collaborative Court: Special courts that combine intensive judicial supervision with rehabilitation services. Collaborative courts typically focus on a particular issue, such as substance abuse, mental health, or domestic violence.

Felony: The most serious type of crime, for which an offender may be sentenced to state prison depending on the type of crime and the criminal history of the offender. Felonies include various property and drug crimes, as well as crimes against persons. Certain felonies are classified in state law as “violent” or “serious.” Violent felonies include murder, robbery, and rape. Serious felonies include most violent felonies, as well as other crimes such as burglary of a residence. Generally, only offenders with a current or prior conviction for a serious, violent, or sex-related offense may be sent to prison. Some felony offenders can be sentenced to county jail, probation, or a combination of county jail and community supervision.

Infraction: The least serious type of criminal offense, generally punishable by a fine. Many motor vehicle violations are considered infractions.

Jail: A county-run correctional facility that houses individuals following their arrest, waiting for trial, following their revocation, or serving a sentence.

Misdemeanor: A less serious crime than a felony, for which an offender may be sentenced to probation, county jail, a fine, or some combination of the three. Examples of misdemeanors include assault, petty theft, driving under the influence, and possession of most illegal drugs for personal use.

Parole: Community supervision of certain felony offenders that have been released from state prison. Generally, only felony offenders whose current offense is serious or violent are supervised on parole following their release from state prison. This form of supervision is carried out by state parole agents.

Prison: A state-run correctional facility where certain felons—generally those with a current or prior serious, violent or sex-related conviction—are incarcerated.

Probation: Community supervision of offenders in lieu of a prison or jail term. Also, community supervision of offenders after they are released from jail. This form of supervision is carried out by county probation officers.

Recidivism: The percentage of inmates released from prison (or jail) during a particular period who are returned to prison (or jail) for any reason during a specific follow-up period.

Revocation: The return of an offender supervised by parole agents or probation officers to custody because the offender violated one of the conditions of his or her supervision. Revocations may result from “technical” violations, such as failing to report for a drug test, or from violations that themselves could constitute a new crime. Revocation terms may be served in county jail or state prison depending on the offender and the nature of the violation.

State Supreme Court: The highest court in California—it reviews decisions made by the appellate or superior courts (however, it is possible for some cases to move directly to the Supreme Court without a lower court hearing them first).

Trial Court: The court where most legal proceedings begin. There is one trial court (also known as a superior court) in each county.

Last Updated: December 2016