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 Felony vs. Misdemeanors FAQs 

Michael Santos

Michael Santos

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The classification of crimes by state and federal authorities is of great interest to people who come into contact with the criminal justice system in the United States. Of utmost importance, the penalties for criminal charges flow from the crime’s nature and how the state or federal laws classify the charges. 

The most frequently asked questions about the classification of crimes in the US criminal justice system always begin with what is a “felony vs. misdemeanor?”

What Is A Felony vs. A Misdemeanor?

Crimes fall into different categories classified as felony or misdemeanor charges. Felonies are the highest level of crime. Felonies can be violent or non-violent offenses. A felony is more serious than a misdemeanor charge because it has a more significant impact on public safety. Felony charges almost always carry heavier sentences than misdemeanors, including longer times in jail or prison, and more considerable fines, than misdemeanors.

One definition of a felony is a crime for which the sentence is one year or more. Misdemeanors are crimes that are not as serious as felonies. As such, misdemeanors tend to carry no prison time or shorter prison sentences and lower fines. 

What is The Difference Between a State or Federal Felony?

A person can get felony charges from the state or the federal government. Many crimes are felonies under both state and federal law. Both state and federal agents pursue a person for the same crime, but there are guidelines under the US Constitution to protect people from getting punished twice for the same crime. A difference between state and federal penalties is that federal penalties for federal felonies are usually more severe than state penalties for the same felony under state law.

What’s Worse, Misdemeanor or Felony?

A felony is worse than a misdemeanor in terms of the penalty for a person who gets convicted of a crime. Also, for employment reasons, companies generally evaluate misdemeanors less harshly than felonies. Misdemeanors are less severe than felonies and carry lighter penalties. Typically, penalties for a misdemeanor include less than a year in jail, community service, fines, rehabilitation, house arrest, and probation. On the other hand, felonies often carry more than one year in prison and other penalties.  

What Is The Difference Between Felony And Misdemeanor?

A felony and a misdemeanor differ based on the severity of the conduct and the penalties for the crime. Felonies are the most serious crimes a person can commit, and felonies carry longer jail or prison sentences. Misdemeanors usually involve less than a year in jail, more minor fines, and more options for community service instead of jail or prison.

Can Misdemeanors Turn Into Felonies?

Yes, misdemeanors can turn into felonies for people with a criminal record. Prior convictions on a person’s criminal record can turn misdemeanors into felonies. For example, this can happen with repeated domestic violence convictions, shoplifting, or driving under the influence.

Some criminal offenses are charged as either felonies or misdemeanors, depending on several factors, such as:

  • Amount of damages—For certain property crimes, a misdemeanor may be upgraded to a felony if damages exceed a specific dollar amount. For example, the fundamental difference between petty larceny (a misdemeanor) and grand larceny (a felony) is the amount of damages.
  • Status of the victim—Misdemeanors can be treated as felonies if committed against specific people, such as police or other law enforcement officers, older people, people with disabilities, or minors.
  • Aggravated Conduct—Some misdemeanors, such as assault, are upgraded to felonies when the defendant uses a firearm while committing the crime. 

Of course, to the person facing charges, a misdemeanor is as serious as it gets. To the person charged with a misdemeanor, the answer to the frequently asked question “what’s worse, misdemeanor or felony,” will be “a misdemeanor,” understandably because of the direct personal impact to them.

A misdemeanor conviction can land someone in jail, if not prison. It could mean years on probation, reporting to a parole officer. It means the person will have a criminal record, which will show up on background checks and possibly affect future employment opportunities. A misdemeanor also creates victims and affects the community. Just because it is less serious than a felony, people should never take a misdemeanor lightly. 

Some examples of common misdemeanors include:

  • Assault and Battery
  • Aggravated Assault
  • Minor drug offenses, such as possession
  • Petty theft
  • Trespassing
  • Vandalism
  • Minor sex crimes, including solicitation, prostitution and indecent exposure
  • Resisting arrest
  • Some cybercrimes, including stalking or bullying
  • Domestic Violence
  • Operating While Intoxicated (Drunk Driving)
  • Retail Fraud (Shoplifting)
  • Driving With Suspended License
  • Reckless Driving
  • Larceny
  • Violating a protective order
  • Stalking

What Are 3 Examples Of A Felony?

Examples of felonies include violent felonies — such as murder, rape, burglary, kidnapping, and arson, and non-violent felonies, such as fraud and other white-collar crimes.

What Is The Lowest Class Felony?

State and federal felonies are classified from lowest class felony to highest class felony.

For state felonies, the number for the lowest class felony is different state by state. So, for example, in some states, a 4th Degree felony is the lowest class felony, least serious type of felony offense that a defendant can face. A 4th Degree felony is also one step above the highest level misdemeanor in the state.

State felony charges vary by state but typically fall into the following categories:

  • Class 1–the highest class felony and most serious charge carrying the most severe penalties of up to life in prison or even the death penalty; 
  • Class 2–the second-highest class felony with a minimum penalty of 20 years to life in prison;
  • Class 3 –correlating to 5–20 years in prison;
  • Class 4–correlating to between 2–10 years in prison; 
  • Class 5–correlating to a penalty of 1–10 years in prison or 12 months in county jail;
  • Class 6–correlating to a minimum prison sentence of one year, this being the lowest class felony. 

Click here for a convenient charge showing state by state classification of felonies: 

State by State Felony Offenses, Felony Classes, Charges & Penalties.

As to federal felonies, Congress divided federal felonies into five categories: A, B, C, D, and E. Class E felonies are the lowest class federal felony. A crime that’s a Class A federal felony is the worst, with a maximum prison term of life in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.

What Is The Most Common Felony?

The consensus is that the most common felony is drug abuse in the US. Drug abuse is at the top of the list of top 10 felonies. Drug abuse violations are the most common felony charges in recent years, with about 2,000,000 violations reported annually. The next most common is property crime – such as auto theft, burglary, larceny, arson, and theft. Other common felonies are:

  • DUI (driving under the influence).
  • Felony assault (about 1,000,000 charges per year).
  • Disorderly conduct (very common, not always a felony charge, but it is a felony depending on the harm the event caused to society).

Does A Felony Always Mean Jail Time?

A felony does not always mean actual jail time, but a felony most always means there is potential for jail time. One definition of a felony is a crime for which the sentence is one year jail time or more. However, a felony conviction, like a misdemeanor conviction, may not result in actual jail or prison time. While felonies carry potential jail time or prison time ranging from one year at the low end to decades at the higher end, sentencing judges determine a person’s actual sentence. They often have the discretion to impose no time in jail, even for a felony offense. Many factors play a role in the sentencing judge’s decision, including the characteristics of the person facing sentencing. 

Can You Explain The Classification of Federal Felonies?

Federal felony classes are A, B, C, D, and E, from the highest level of offense being Class A, and so forth down the line to the lowest level at Class E. Some states also follow the federal classification system for felonies.

Does Federal Classification of Felonies Affect Sentencing?

Yes, the federal classification of felonies affects a defendant’s sentence under the US sentencing guidelines. The US Congress has adopted a classification system for federal felonies. Under that system, each federal felony is assigned to one of 43 offense levels. In addition, each defendant is placed in one of six criminal history categories at a federal sentencing hearing.

The federal sentencing guidelines, which federal judges use to determine a person’s sentence, recommend a sentence using a grid that considers how severe a particular crime is (or the criminal offense level) together with the defendant’s criminal history. For sentencing purposes, the point at which these assignments intersect is the person’s potential sentence under the federal sentencing guidelines. The sentencing guidelines provide sentencing judges with this intersection guideline as a starting point when imposing a sentence. 

Click on the links below to learn more from Prison Professors about the federal system and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines:

Basics On US Sentencing Guidelines.

Sentencing Guidelines Table.

Loss Amounts in Sentencing Guidelines.

What Are Some Differences State vs. Federal Felonies? 

There are several significant differences between state and federal felonies, the main one having to do with jurisdiction. Federal prosecutors and the federal government prosecute cases involving federal crimes, while state prosecutors charge defendants in state courts when they have broken state laws. The location where the incident took place often determines whether the federal or state prosecutor is the one who files charges. Crimes committed on federal property or in more than one state are federal crimes that will fall under the jurisdiction of federal prosecutors. 

Another difference between state and federal felonies is the level of penalties, both fines and imprisonment. Federal felonies are often considered more serious than state felonies and often carry more severe penalties. Federal convictions are generally harsher than state convictions. A federal conviction requires that a person serve at least 85 percent of the sentence, while a person can serve 50 percent of the sentence in most states. Federal law creates fewer opportunities for prosecutors to offer felony plea bargains, and federal judges have to follow stricter sentencing guidelines for felony convictions, often harsh and extended.

What Crimes are Federal Felonies?

Common federal criminal prosecutions include:

Federal drug crimesDrug possession
Drug trafficking
White-collar crimesBank and securities fraud
Mail and wire fraud
Medicaid and Medicare fraud
Tax fraud
Check and credit card fraud
Sex crimes
Violent crimes


Felonies, both state and federal, are more serious than misdemeanors, carrying longer potential prison sentences and larger fines. But misdemeanors can severely impact people’s personal and professional lives too. To someone facing misdemeanor charges, a misdemeanor is as serious as it gets. 

Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, regularly helps clients locate and vet criminal defense lawyers.

Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, works alongside (not in place of) civil and criminal defense counsel to help clients proactively navigate through investigations and prosecutions. Our team also helps clients prepare mitigation and compliance strategies.

If you have any questions or are uncertain about any of the issues discussed in this post, schedule a call with our risk mitigation team to receive additional guidance.

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