In almost every state, a crime is one of three things: infraction, misdemeanor, or felony. Very simply put, an infraction is lowest in terms of the magnitude of the crime and a felony is the worst. This also means that the associated punishments get increasingly harsh. The difference between misdemeanor and felony crimes, however, is a little bit more nuanced, not in the least because it varies by state.
What Is a Misdemeanor?
A misdemeanor is an offense that is more serious than an infraction. In most cases, however, the maximum sentence associated with these offenses is one year in jail. In many cases, jail time is also served in a county jail, rather than in a state prison. In some states, a misdemeanor is simply every crime that isn’t an infraction but isn’t a felony either, regardless of the possible punishment.
What Is a Felony?
A felony is a very serious charge. Usually, punishments start with one year in prison or more. They can have even more severe punishments, which is why it is very important that the rights of the defendant are properly protected when in court. Society also views felony crimes as very serious, as they include things like arson, kidnapping, burglary, rape, and murder. Punishments for felony crimes vary based on a range of different factors, but they are inevitably harsher than those associated with misdemeanors.
Different States, Different Rules
In each state, the rules on what constitutes an infraction, misdemeanor, or felony would have some differences compared to that of other states, and they can also set the associated punishments themselves. In the vast majority of states, there are also further sub-classifications within the crimes, such as Class A, B, and C. The class will indicate the minimum (and often maximum) punishments associated with the crime. Because states can set their own rules and guidelines, a crime may be a misdemeanor in one state, but a felony in another. The biggest differences, however, are seen in drug offenses. For instance, possession of 1 ounce of marijuana is a felony in Arizona, a misdemeanor in Texas, and completely legal in Washington State.
Sometimes, the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony is so minute, that it is left at the discretion of the prosecution. Usually, they will base this decision on the aggravating and mitigating circumstances in a case. These crimes are known as “wobbler” crimes. Examples of wobbler crimes are:
- A DUI in which no third parties were harmed, which could be a misdemeanor
- An assault in which no weapons were used, which could be a misdemeanor
Usually, however, wobbler crimes are charged as felonies. This is to give the prosecution more leverage in terms of negotiating a plea deal. However, this only happens if there are no aggravating factors that firmly place the crime as a felony.
Class A Misdemeanor vs Felony Punishments
It is common for fines to be imposed with both types of crimes. Exactly how much that fine is depends on the crime and on the state. For instance, a Class A misdemeanor in Alaska can come with a $10,000 fine. Usually, however, misdemeanor fines have a maximum of between $1,000 and $5,000 attached to them. With a felony, however, the fines are far higher. In New York, a Class A-1 felony conviction can result in a $100,000 fine.
In terms of jail sentences, it is possible that someone is charged with a misdemeanor, yet no jail sentence is imposed, or probation only is required. If someone does have to be incarcerated, it will be for less than one year, except in Massachusetts, where it can go up to two and a half years. Sentences are generally served in county jails, rather than a state prison. With a felony crime, however, the convict will usually be sent to a state prison for a term of one year ranging to life. In some states, including Oklahoma and Texas, the death penalty can be imposed.
It is also important to understand the “three-strikes laws”, which are present in 27 states, and how they impact sentencing. Essentially, those who are persistent offenders, and particularly felons, could be sentenced to life in prison for their third offense. It is not clear whether three-strikes laws have led to a reduction in crime. They certainly have led to an increased prison population and these laws affect minority populations in particular.
States tend to also have sub-classes for both misdemeanors and felonies, and maximum sentences often vary based on that. While there are significant differences between states, the general rules for misdemeanors are that:
- A Class 1 (or A) carries up to 18 months in jail and a fine of no more than $5,000.
- A Class 2 (or B) carries up to one year in jail and a fine of no more than $1,000.
- A Class 3 (or C) carries up to six months in jail and a fine of no more than $50.
With a felony conviction, the punishments depending on sub-classification are approximately:
- A possible life sentence, including death sentence, and a fine of up to $1 million for a Class 1 (or A) felony
- Up to 24 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million for a Class 2 (or B) felony
- Up to 12 years in prison and a fine of up to $750,000 for a Class 3 (or C) felony
The above indicate the harshest penalties that exist, but they clearly demonstrate the difference between Class A misdemeanor and felony.
Further Consequences of Convictions
There are also differences in the long term consequences of a conviction of a Class A misdemeanor or felony. With both, they will receive a permanent mark, which means they may find it difficult to own or possess firearms, to gain employment, and to access housing assistance. However, so long as they were not related to employment, it is generally easier for someone with a misdemeanor to regain employment and lead a normal professional life. This is because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has put limits on whether or not employers can reject an applicants based on their criminal history. That said, having a criminal record always impacts certain professions, such as in health care, law, and teaching.
Technically, a Class A misdemeanor is the worst type of misdemeanor and only one step away from becoming a felony (generally Class C). To make the differentiation, the prosecution will look at all the aggravating factors, which are the details that make the crime worse, and all the mitigating factors, which are the details that make the crime less bad, and use this to determine how to charge. However, as stated, when in doubt, the prosecution will inevitably go for the felony charge and have it reduced through pleas, using it as a leverage in the case.
- The Difference Between Misdemeanors and Felonies. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.attorneys.com/felonies/the-difference-between-misdemeanors-and-felonies
- What are the Differences Between Felonies and Misdemeanors? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.hg.org/article.asp?id=30998
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/