What Is a Misdemeanor?
How Are Crimes Classified in the United States?
In the United States, crimes are categorized as felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions. A felony is the most serious of the three, and an infraction is the least serious. In this article, we will discuss how crimes are categorized with special attention to misdemeanors. The law breaks crimes down into many categories to provide guidelines for how they are to be dealt with and penalized. Felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions are the most basic classification and will provide information as to the severity of the penalties someone will face if they are convicted. For example, murder is a felony charge but will be broken down into first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter.
Some crimes are called “wobblers” by lawyers, which means they can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor depending on the circumstances. This allows the court to apply discretion to decide the severity of the crime and factor in things like intention and the harm to the victim.
A felony is a serious crime that carries a prison sentence of longer than a year. Most state definitions of the term felony reference the penalties that may be awarded. While the law will define certain crimes as facing felony charges or misdemeanor charges, it does not provide a complete list.
The felony will appear on the defendant’s criminal record as well as the crime they were charged with. In the most serious cases, a felony could carry the death penalty or a life prison sentence without parole. The lightest penalty for a felony is 1-5 years in state prison. Crimes like arson, rape, kidnapping, and burglary are examples of felonies.
Just like the term felony, most states will define the term misdemeanor by the penalty the crime will attract. In most states, the prison time for a misdemeanor will be a year or less as well as things like fines and probation. A misdemeanor offense will have a prison sentence of at least five days.
The prosecutor has a lot of discretion on what sentencing guidelines they can give the judge for a misdemeanor offense. They may suggest between five days and a year in prison, they may suggest the type of prison or correctional facility (though county jail is the most common for misdemeanors), and they can offer plea bargains to defendants to reduce the penalties.
Misdemeanors are still serious, because they appear on your criminal record and can affect future job prospects and sentencing for any future crimes. However, the penalties for a misdemeanor are not as harsh as those for a felony.
An infraction may not even carry jail time. They are much less serious than a misdemeanor, and most infractions do not even require a court appearance or affect the defendant’s criminal record. Examples of infractions are:
- Parking tickets
- Speeding tickets
If there is a jail sentence for an infraction, it will be five days or less. Usually, an infraction will be punished with fines or community service.