What are the Differences Between Felonies and Misdemeanors?

In most states, crimes are classified in one of two categories: felonies and misdemeanors. Sometimes, there are also a third class of crimes called petty crimes or violations, and are usually punished by a fine with no jail time (these often include traffic infractions). Understanding the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor can be critical in understanding charges against a person, terms of plea agreements, and potential punishments.


Misdemeanors are generally considered less serious crimes. Common examples include minor thefts, certain traffic offenses (like DUI or driving on a suspended license), and many minor drug offenses. Some states include different classes of misdemeanor, with more serious misdemeanors being first degree, and less serious being second and third degree. Misdemeanors are usually punishable by substantial fines and sometimes jail time, usually less than one year. Of course, multiple misdemeanor charges can be brought simultaneously and sentences can be structured to run consecutively (rather than concurrently) meaning that when one sentence ends the next one begins. In that way, multiple misdemeanor charges can equate to years in jail, so it is important to understand just how serious even a misdemeanor can be.

Any jail term would most likely be served in a local or county jail, rather than a state or federal correctional institution. This can be a mixed blessing. While the inmate may be closer to family and friends, many will tell you that life in jail is less structured, more chaotic, and more brutal than time in prison.

While some misdemeanor proceedings may be expedited, generally the process is like any other trial. A defendant does have a right to an attorney, and one is appointed if the defendant cannot afford one, or the defendant can choose to represent himself, though that is highly unrecommended and the court will likely try to change the defendant's mind. Jury trials can be available, depending upon the type of misdemeanor alleged, though it is often a smaller jury (frequently just 6 members) as opposed to the familiar 12 member jury seen in TV shows and movies.


Felonies are the most serious type of crime and are usually classified by degrees, with a first degree felony being the most serious. Examples of felonies include murder, aggravated or grand theft, rape, etc. Many states require that a prosecutor obtain an indictment from a grand jury before charging someone with a felony, but this is not always required. Felonies are punishable by substantial fines and prison sentences in excess of one year or possibly even death.

If convicted of a felony, an inmate will most likely serve their sentence in a state or federal correctional institution, more commonly referred to as a prison or penitentiary. Often, inmates may be transferred from one prison to another to accommodate the needs of the correctional system in which they are serving their time, so they may spend time far from home.

Those accused of felonies will be entitled to a trial by jury. The court must provide an accused person with an attorney if he or she cannot afford one. Many felony trials may also include smaller juries, but some more serious crimes, particularly where life in prison or the death penalty are possible sentences, will often have juries of 12 and possibly even more if alternate jurors (or jurors who can fill in should one of the primary jurors fall ill or become disqualified) are used.

Conviction of a felony brings with it more disadvantages than just higher fines and longer jail time. In some states, persons convicted of felonies cannot serve on juries, or purchase or possess firearms and may not be employed in certain professions, such as law, teaching, or the military.

Other Considerations

Some crimes, whether charged as a felony or a misdemeanor, may have secondary consequences to consider. For example, more and more states require those convicted of certain crimes with a sexual element to register as sex offenders or sexual predators. Other types of crimes may disqualify you from other types of licensing or even come back to haunt you should you ever testify if they involve a crime of dishonesty, such as writing bad checks, perjury, or fraud. Additionally, some states have enacted civil penalties for criminal acts, such as Florida's Jimmy Ryce act, which allows for the involuntary civil commitment of a violent sexual offender (i.e., if someone commits a sexually violent offense like rape, they can be sentenced to a mental institution for the rest of their life).

Whether charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, any criminal charge is a serious matter, possibly one of the most serious encounters a person will have with the legal system. As such, it is critical that if you or someone you know is dealing with a criminal charge, you should contact an experienced, qualified attorney to assist you with your case.

Provided by HG.org

Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws and.how they may affect a case.

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