Criminal Defense Information Center
Classifications of Crimes
Because the negative behavior regulated by the criminal laws varies from relatively minor to devastatingly violent, crimes are classified into levels or degrees. The classification of a crime reflects its seriousness. The actual classification of a particular offense varies depending on the jurisdiction. If you are questioned about a crime or are accused of or arrested for a crime, you should consult an experienced attorney as early in the process as possible. A criminal defense lawyer can explain the particular crime involved and its possible ramifications.
Under federal criminal law and the laws of about half of the states, a felony is a crime that is punishable by imprisonment of more than one year. Other states define a felony as a crime that is punishable by death or a prison sentence served in a state penitentiary. Generally speaking, the most serious crimes, such as those that are either particularly heinous, involve dangerous weapons or threaten relatively high amounts of financial damage or harm to property, are classified as felonies.
- Examples of felonies include murder, treason, rape, arson, burglary and kidnapping.
- For federal felonies, defendants have the right to be charged only by a grand jury. This right varies for state felonies.
- Because of the seriousness of the offense and the punishment, maximum safeguards for the defendant’s rights are built into the prosecution and court procedures.
- Indigent defendants who cannot afford to hire lawyers and are facing felony charges have the right to free state-appointed criminal defense attorneys.
- In addition to social stigma, long-term consequences may include the loss of the right to vote; ineligibility for elected office or professional licenses; restrictions on the right to possess weapons; ineligibility for housing, public benefits, educational benefits or certain jobs; immigration problems; loss of the right to serve as a juror; negative impact on parental rights or divorce proceedings; or the requirement to register with certain criminal registries.
- Persons accused of felonies have the right to jury trials.
A limited number of crimes, such as murder, can be punished by the death penalty. These crimes are often referred to as capital offenses.
Under federal criminal law and the criminal laws in about half of the states, a misdemeanor is a crime for which the maximum possible punishment is incarceration for one year or less. In other states, a misdemeanor is defined as a crime punishable only by fine or by incarceration in a jail. Some states have different classes of misdemeanors, for example, “petty offenses” that are punishable by six months or less in jail and “simple” or “minor” misdemeanors that have a maximum punishment of 90 days in jail.
Generally, misdemeanors are crimes that are less violent or involve lower levels of harm than felonies do. The legal procedures for misdemeanors are usually simpler than for felonies, the penalties less severe and the long-term consequences less harsh.
- Penalties typically include fines, property forfeitures or incarceration in a jail for one year or less.
- There is no federal right to a grand jury for a misdemeanor, and state grand jury rights for misdemeanors vary.
- Court procedures may be more relaxed than those for felonies.
- Indigent defendants are generally only eligible for free state-appointed legal counsel when the misdemeanor charges can result in imprisonment upon conviction.
- Long-term consequences are normally less severe than those of felonies, although some of the felony consequences listed above may still apply to misdemeanors, depending on the jurisdiction. However, those convicted of misdemeanors generally retain the right to vote.
- Generally, if the potential punishment is imprisonment for less than six months, there is no right to a jury trial.
The least severe infractions are minor traffic offenses and the like. The terminology varies by state, but common terms for these offenses include petty offenses, infractions or violations of local law. Often the only penalty is a fine and sometimes the infraction may not even be considered a crime. Violations of local ordinances may be punishable by a fine or a short period of incarceration (maximum length of 90 days).
It is important to keep in mind that crime classifications vary by jurisdiction and that this article provides general information. To understand the details of a criminal charge in your jurisdiction, talk to an attorney who can explain the potential punishment and ramifications.
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