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What is the Difference Between a Misdemeanor & a Felony?

Instructor: Leanne White

Leanne has a master's degree and an independent licensure in chemical dependency counseling. She has extended experience in corrections and post-secondary education.

What does calling someone a ~'felon~' mean? Are there only certain offenses that earn the title? This lesson will explore the differences between misdemeanor and felony level offenses, including degrees of severity and sentencing limits.

Misdemeanors vs. Felonies

To ensure appropriate and fair punishment, criminal offenses are categorized into types and degrees. There are infractions and tickets and then there are misdemeanor and felony level offenses. There are three differences between misdemeanor and felony level offenses:

  • The length of incarceration
  • The type of incarceration (jail or prison)
  • The long-term consequences

Misdemeanors

Misdemeanors are more serious than tickets or infractions (i.e. speeding ticket) but less serious than a felony. Misdemeanor offenses are categorized into degrees of severity. First-degree misdemeanors are the most serious, whereas, fourth-degree and minor misdemeanors are the least severe. Each state decides how the offenses fall into the degrees of severity, however, the majority of states follow the same standards. The chart below lists example misdemeanor offenses in each level of severity.

First-Degree Second-Degree Third-Degree Fourth-Degree Minor
Unauthorized use a vehicle Obstructing official business Illegal cultivation of marijuana Selling contaminated food Public gaming
Petty theft Abuse of a corpse Possessing a suspended concealed gun permit Disturbing a lawful meeting Failure to aid an officer
Carrying a gun without a permit Unlawful transaction in weapons Vandalizing public property Failure to disperse Disorderly conduct

Punishment for Misdemeanors

Even though misdemeanors are less severe than felonies, they are still extremely serious and can hold substantial punishments. The following are possible sanctions placed upon those charged with misdemeanors.

  • Jail: misdemeanor offenses can be sentenced anywhere from 30 days to a year in jail. The majority of misdemeanor cases are spent in local jails. The court system has the right to decide whether or not multiple misdemeanor sentences run concurrently (together) or consecutively (one after the other). If the judge decides to run sentences consecutively, another sentence will not begin until the first has ended. This could cause a person to be in jail for several years.
  • Probation: probation is a way for the court system to keep an eye on the defendant. Probation can last for as long as the court decides and can be extended if needed. The court will set strict conditions of supervision and if the defendant does not meet these requirements or violates them, a harsher punishment most likely will take place. Examples of conditions of supervision can include refraining from drug and alcohol use, obtaining employment, and residing at an appropriate residence.
  • Fines: misdemeanor offenses can come with fines anywhere from $50 to $2,000.
  • Restitution: when there are victims involved or property has been damaged, restitution is generally placed on the defendant. They will be required to pay back a certain amount to the people or business they caused harm.

Misdemeanor Sentencing by Degree

There are regulations on how much jail time the court can sentence to a defendant. This protects the individual's rights and eliminates the chance of unfair sentencing. The chart below lists the maximum amount of time a defendant can receive for each level of offense.

First-degree Second-degree Third-degree Fourth-degree Minor
180 days in jail 90 days in jail 60 days in jail 30 days in jail no jail sentence
$1,000 in fines $750 in fines $500 in fines $250 in fines $100 in fines

Felonies

Felonies are the most serious offenses. There are several different types, including violent, non-violent, federal, and 'unclassified.' Felonies carry heavier sentences and long-term consequences. People convicted of felonies can no longer purchase or possess firearms, vote, or be employed in education, law enforcement, or the military.

Felony Degree

Similar to misdemeanors, felonies are identified by their degree of severity. Each state's criminal code decides the degree of severity for each felony, however, the majority of states follow the same standards.

First-degree Second-degree Third-degree Fourth-degree
murder aggravated assault battery involuntary manslaughter
rape felony assault elder abuse burglary
kidnapping manslaughter DUI larceny
arson child molestation fraud resisting arrest

Felony Sentencing by Degree

Similar to misdemeanors, there are maximum sentences for each degree of felony. You will notice that 'life' is not included in this list. This is because a life sentence is usually kept for murder and aggravated murder, the two most serious offenses. These two offenses are 'unclassified felonies' and receive specific sentencing as outlined by the state or federal criminal code. The chart below outlines the sentencing standards for all other felonies.

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