Criminal Law

Felonies: The Most Serious Type of Criminal Offense

By John McCurley, Attorney
How crimes are classified as “felonies” and the differences between a felonies and misdemeanors.

All states classify crimes based on seriousness. These classifications usually include felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions (minor violations). The most serious offenses—which also carry the most severe penalties—are felonies.

Lots of the details—such as felony punishments and which specific crimes are labeled “felonies”—differ by jurisdiction. But here are some of the basics.

What’s the Difference Between a Felony and a Misdemeanor?

Length of incarceration. The dividing line between misdemeanors and felonies is generally based on possible length of incarceration. In most states, any crime that can result in more than a year behind bars is a felony. (This doesn’t mean that everyone convicted of a felony will spend more than a year in prison—the felony classification comes from the possibility of such a sentence.) Misdemeanors, on the other hand, carry a maximum of one year in jail.

Where the sentence is served. Generally, offenders sentenced to a year or less serve their time in a local or county jail, whereas a sentence of more than year is served in state prison. So, incidentally, a felony can land a defendant in state prison but a misdemeanor typically cannot.

Consequences compared. In addition to the length of incarceration, felonies often come with more numerous and serious consequences than misdemeanors. Felonies usually have higher fines than misdemeanors, and felons face other post-conviction disabilities that misdemeanants don’t. For example, a felony conviction can result in the loss of the right to vote, serve on a jury, and hold certain licenses. And for felons, certain jobs might be off-limits.

What Types of Crimes are Felonies?

Each state classifies crimes differently. So a certain crime might be a felony in one state and a misdemeanor in another. For example, a third DUI is a felony in Illinois but a misdemeanor in Pennsylvania. (625 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/11-501 (2017); 75 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3803 (2017).)

There are, however, a number of crimes that are felonies in every state. These include some of the more heinous of crimes like rape and murder.

With other crimes, the classification—felony or misdemeanor—depends on the circumstances. For instance, drug possession might be a misdemeanor for small amounts and a felony for larger quantities. And a first DUI is typically a misdemeanor, but if the offense involves serious injuries, felony charges are possible.

(Also, read about “wobblers,” crimes that can be charged as a felony or misdemeanor.)

Are There Different Classifications of Felonies?

Some states just have one classification of felony, while other states break felonies down into “levels” or “classes.” These felony subcategories are based on seriousness. In Washington, for instance, felonies are designated class A, B, or C—with class A being the most and class C being the least serious. (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 9A.20.010, 9A.20.021, 10.95.020 (2017).)

(Find out how felonies are categorized in your state.)

Questions for an Attorney

  • Can I be a school teacher if I have a felony conviction?
  • Are there ways to expunge or clean up my felony record
  • Will my employer find out if I get convicted of a felony?

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