In all states and under federal law, crimes are classified as either felonies (more serious crimes) or misdemeanors (less serious crimes). This article will review how states and the federal government define and classify felony crimes and how to find their corresponding penalties. For information on misdemeanors, check out Misdemeanor Crimes: Classes and Penalties.
States and the federal government define felonies differently, but the most common definition of a felony is any crime that carries the possibility of incarceration for one year or more. The term "possibility" is key here. Even if a defendant receives probation or less than a year in jail as their sentence, the conviction will still be a felony as long as the penalty could have been a year or more.
Many states divide their criminal or penal codes by type of offenses—for instance, homicide offenses, assault offenses, sex offenses, thefts, business crimes, and offenses against public safety and order. Felonies can fall into any of these types of crimes but generally represent the most serious of them.
For some types of crimes, an offense might start as a misdemeanor but increase to a felony. A state's theft law might make theft of $1,000 or less a petty or misdemeanor, but stealing any amount above $1,000 is a felony. Other types of offenses will always be felonies, such as murder and treason. Other common felonies include rape, robbery, burglary, and drug trafficking.
Felonies and misdemeanors differ in significant ways. Below are some key differences.
In general, felonies carry a potential sentence to state prison. Misdemeanors, by contrast, involve possible incarceration in a county or local jail.
In most states, misdemeanor sentences are not longer than one year, whereas felony sentences are longer. Many states define felonies as any crime with the possibility of incarceration of a year or more and up to life. In states that have the death penalty, certain felonies can also result in a sentence of death.
A person with a felony conviction can lose civil rights and face numerous barriers. For instance, a felon may lose the right to vote and may also be barred from serving on a jury or possessing a firearm. Certain professional licenses may become off-limits, and convicted felons can find it difficult to obtain jobs and housing. By contrast, those with a misdemeanor conviction generally don't face such serious consequences.
Many states divide felonies into subcategories (such as classes or levels) for purposes of assigning sentences. 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.
In states that divide felonies into classes or levels, each subcategory will have its own sentence or sentence range based on the seriousness of the crime.
States might use letter subcategories (A, B, C) or numbers (1, 2, and so on). Others avoid the terms "class" and "level," and instead use descriptive phrases. Texas, for example, classifies some felonies as "state jail felonies" and all other felonies are classed by degree (first, second, and so on). Some states use one classification system for drug offenses and another for all other offenses—Colorado being an example.
Whatever type of classification system the state uses, the lower the number or letter is, the higher the offense severity is. For instance, Class A or 1 is typically the most serious felony level, Class B or 2 is the next serious and so on.
Some states don't rely on felony subcategories and rather specify the penalty on a crime-by-crime basis. For instance, in Massachusetts, the sentence for every felony will appear in each crime's statute defining the crime. In California, each criminal statute states the sentencing range that's possible for that offense.
Other 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 often known as "unclassified" offenses). For example, felonies in Pennsylvania are either first-, second-, or third-degree crimes or unclassified crimes. First- through third-degree felonies will have penalties set by degree, whereas unclassified crimes will have the penalty stated along with the crime.
A state might also classify all felonies except certain ones, such as murder offenses or felonies subject to life or death sentences. Like unclassified crimes, these offenses will have their own sentencing provisions specific to that offense.
Sentencing laws differ greatly, but here are some examples of how to find the maximum sentence for a felony offense based on a state's classification system.
In states that use subcategories, most will have a statute or statutes that define the penalties for each class, level, or degree. For instance, a state's law might specify the following in its criminal or penal code: Class A felonies carry a life sentence, and Class B felonies carry a maximum sentence of 30 years of incarceration.
To learn the sentence for a particular crime, you would refer to the statute that defines the crime and cross-reference the penalty for that classification. So if you look up robbery and the law says it's a Class B felony, based on the above example, the maximum penalty for robbery would be 30 years in prison.
In states that define penalties for each crime, you can usually find the penalty right in the criminal statute. An arson statute might read for instance: A person who commits arson is guilty of a felony and may be punished by up to 20 years' incarceration.
For states with a hybrid approach, you'll likely need to do a combination of both the examples above.
The federal government also has crimes. Sometimes an offense can be prosecuted under either federal or state law (such as bank robbery) or just federal law (like immigration offenses). Federal law assigns penalties on a crime-by-crime basis.
For some crimes, the penalty will be in the criminal statute. The law prohibiting drug possession, for example, states that a second conviction for drug possession carries a penalty of 15 days to 2 years in prison. Under other sections of the law, one statute might list all the crimes and another states the penalties. Illegal gun possession is an example. Unlawful acts can be found in section 922 of title 18 of the U.S. Code, while the penalties for these acts are located in section 924.
Finding felony classifications and penalties is just the start of understanding how felony sentencing works. Many states and the federal government use sentencing grids and guidelines that help judges find an appropriate sentence based on the defendant's prior criminal history and the severity of the offenses.
Laws also provide sentencing enhancements for repeat offenses, offenses against vulnerable people, and hate crimes, among other enhancements. It's definitely best to consult with a criminal defense attorney to learn more about your state's felony classification and penalty system.
Follow the links below to get general information on felony classes A, B, C, D, and E.
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||Class 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or unclassified; Drug levels 1, 2, 3, 4|
|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||1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6|
|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, D, or E|
|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-, or 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, H, or I|