Felonies and Misdemeanors
In all states, crimes are classified as either misdemeanors (less serious crimes) or felonies (more serious crimes). Felonies and misdemeanors differ in significant ways:
- Prison versus jail. In general, felonies carry a potential sentence to state prison; misdemeanors, by contrast, involve possible incarceration in a county or local jail.
- Length of incarceration. In most states, misdemeanor sentences are not longer than one year, whereas felony sentences are longer. In states that have the death penalty, certain felonies can also result in a sentence of death.
- Ramifications post-conviction. A person with a felony conviction may lose the right to vote and may also be barred from serving on a jury. Certain professional licenses may become off-limits, and convicted felons may find it difficult to obtain jobs and housing. By contrast, those with a misdemeanor conviction will not face such serious consequences.
This article explains how states assign sentences to felonies. For information on how states do the same to misdemeanor crimes, see Misdemeanor Charges: Classes and Penalties.
How States Classify Felony Crimes
For purposes of assigning sentences to each felony offense, many states divide felonies into subcategories. Others assign sentences on a crime-by-crime basis, and some use a hybrid approach, as explained below.
To get more information in your state, jump ahead to felony classification laws by state.
Subcategories of crimes: Classes and levels
Within each of these two main groups, many states use subcategories, which again are based on the crime’s seriousness. Each subcategory has its own sentence or sentence range. For example, Missouri classifies its felonies as Class A, B, C, or D crimes; and its misdemeanors as Class A, B, or C. Every statute defining a crime in Missouri identifies the crime by class; once you know the class, you can learn the possible sentence for that offense by referring to the law that sets the sentence for each class.
States may use letter subcategories, as just explained; or they may use numbers (1, 2, and so on); and they may speak of “levels” instead of classes. They may also avoid the terms “class” and “level,” and instead use descriptive phrases. Texas, for example, classifies some felonies as “state jail felonies” (other felonies are classed by degree; see “A hybrid approach,” below).
Some states, however, do not use subcategories. They simply assign a sentence to every misdemeanor and felony, crime-by-crime. For instance, in Massachusetts, the sentence for every felony and misdemeanor will appear in each crime’s statute defining the crime. In California, each criminal statute states the sentence range that’s possible for that offense.
A hybrid approach
Some states adopt a hybrid approach, using subcategories for most offenses and, for some crimes, assigning the sentence in the statute defining the crime (these are known as “unclassified” offenses). For example, felonies in Pennsylvania are either first, second, third degree, or unclassified crimes. To learn the sentence for a particular first degree crime, you would refer to the statute that states the sentence for all first degree offenses. But if the crime is identified as an unclassified crime, the sentence will be right in the statute defining the offense.
Congress has adopted a system for federal felony offenses that is similar to the grid used in Kansas. Each felony is assigned to one of 43 “offense levels.” And each defendant is placed in one of six “criminal history categories.” The point at which these assignments intersect is the offender’s sentence range, contained in the federal sentencing guidelines. Judges use these guidelines as a starting point when imposing a sentence. For more about the federal system, see Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
Felony Classifications in Your State
The chart below summarizes the approach of each state when it comes to organizing their felony crimes. Click the link for any state to be taken to an in-depth article that explains the system for that state in detail.
|Alabama||A, B, or C|
|Alaska||A, B, or C|
|Arizona||1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6|
|Arkansas||Y, A, B, C, or D|
|Colorado||1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or unclassified|
|Connecticut||A, B, C, or D; or unclassified (by crime); different sentencing laws apply for crimes committed before July 1, 1981|
|Delaware||A, B, C, D, E, F, or G|
|Florida||Capital or life felonies; or felonies of the first, second, or third degree|
|Hawaii||A, B, or C; murder classed separately|
|Illinois||X, 1, 2, 3, or 4; murder classed separately|
|Indiana||A, B, C, or D|
|Iowa||A, B, C, or D|
|Kentucky||A, B, C, or D|
|Maine||A, B, or C|
|Michigan||A, B, C, D, E, F, G, or H|
|Missouri||A, B, C, or D|
|Nebraska||Class I, IA, IB, IC, ID, II, III, IIIA, or IV|
|Nevada||A, B, C, D, or E|
|New Hampshire||A or B|
|New Jersey||Indictable offenses: first, second, third or fourth degree|
|New Mexico||Capital offenses, first, second, third, or fourth degree|
|New York||A-I, A-II, B, C, D, or E|
|North Carolina||A, B1, B2, C, D, E, F, G, H, or I|
|North Dakota||AA, A, B, or C|
|Ohio||First, second, third, fourth, or fifth degree|
|Oregon||Unclassified (by crime), A, B, or C|
|Pennsylvania||First, second, third degree or unclassified (by crime)|
|Rhode Island||By crime|
|South Carolina||A, B, C, D, E, or F|
|South Dakota||Classes A, B,or C; and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6|
|Tennessee||A, B, C, D, or E|
|Texas||Capital felonies; first, second or third degree felonies; or state jail felonies|
|Utah||Capital felonies; first, second or third degree felonies|
|Virginia||1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or by crime|
|Washington||A, B, or C|
|West Virginia||By crime|
|Wisconsin||A, B, C, D, E, F, G, or I|