Criminal Law: The Differences Between a Felony & a Misdemeanor

by Scott Grabel

When someone is caught committing a crime, depending on its severity, the person can be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony. A felony is considered to be a much more serious crime than a misdemeanor, and normally carries a longer jail sentence and higher penalties. Typically, nonviolent crimes such as shoplifting are considered misdemeanors while more serious crimes such as armed robbery or murder are felonies, however there are many things considered when determining how to charge someone with a crime.

In The United States, it is up to the individual states to classify and define most crimes as well as their punishments. Many states classify felonies and misdemeanors in classes or by some other means. Punishment is then determined based on which class the crime committed falls under. Because states have the ability to classify and define crimes, classification can vary drastically between states. A crime that might be considered a misdemeanor in one state could be a felony in another. Differences between states are especially apparent when it comes to issues such as drug laws.

What Are Misdemeanors?

While particular laws vary by state, misdemeanors generally include nonviolent crimes. In many cases, misdemeanors do not lead to long amounts of jail time. Misdemeanors can include vandalism, certain types of drug possession, simple assault, and disorderly conduct, among others.

What Are Felonies?

Crimes that are classified as felonies tend to involve physical violence, or some type of action that can cause extreme harm psychologically. Examples of felony crimes include manslaughter or murder, aggravated assault, kidnapping, and more. Felonies can also involve nonviolent activities that are still considered extremely harmful. These types of felonies can include grand theft, tax evasion, perjury, copyright infringement, and parole or probation violations.

Some crimes can be prosecuted as either misdemeanors or felonies. This is normally determined by the prosecutor and the decision is based on both discretion and aggravating factors, such as whether or not a weapon was used during the crime.

Punishments for Misdemeanors & Felonies

Punishments for crimes often include fines and possibly jail sentences. Fines for misdemeanors as well as felonies vary by crime and by state. Felony charges tend to be much higher, with the most serious felonies resulting in very large monetary fines. Jail sentences vary depending on the crime just as fines do. Depending on the crime, it is possible that no jail sentence is given, and that only probation is required. Jail time for misdemeanors is usually served in a county jail as opposed to a prison. Felonies result in much longer jail sentences and felons generally serve their sentences in state prisons.

The Effects of Criminal Convictions

People that commit crimes and are convicted or either misdemeanors or felonies after the age of eighteen will receive a permanent mark on their record. Depending on the crime, having a record can affect employment opportunities and many other aspects of life.

It is important that people know and follow the laws of their state to stay out of trouble, and consult a criminal lawyer should they encounter any issues. Criminal convictions can carry lifelong consequences. To learn more about misdemeanors and felonies, consult the pages listed below.