In New York, as in most states, a felony is any crime that carries a potential prison sentence of more than a year. (Any crime that could be punished by incarceration for more than 15 days but less than a year is treated as a misdemeanor in New York.)
This article gives a general overview of how sentencing works, the different kinds of felony sentences, and the main factors that affect how long someone convicted of a felony might spend in prison.
Like many states, New York law spells out sentencing guidelines for different classes of felonies (ranging from Class E, the least serious, to Class A-I, the most serious). The sentencing rules differ depending on which class of felony is committed. Prison sentences for felonies in New York are generally either indeterminate or determinate sentences, though some felons can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Here are just a few examples of felonies in each of the felony classes under New York law:
(N.Y. Penal Law §§ 120.05, 125.10, 125.13, 125.27, 130.30, 130.40, 130.95 135.25, 150.20, 155.30, 160.15, 170.15, 175.10, 190.79, 200.04, 220.18, 220.21 (2023).)
Indeterminate sentences set the minimum and maximum amount of prison time someone will serve. The amount of time a judge imposes for a sentence is called a "term." For example, an indeterminate sentence might be three to seven years, or 25 years to life. Once prisoners have served the minimum term, they're eligible to be considered for release on parole. If they're denied parole, they won't serve more than the maximum sentence.
Prison sentences are indeterminate for most felonies, except for certain violent felonies, drug crimes, and sex crimes (as discussed below). In general, the minimum term must be at least a year, and the maximum must be at least three years. But New York law also sets out specific minimum and maximum terms for each felony class.
When a defendant is convicted of a class D or E felony (and hasn't been sentenced for a prior felony within the past 10 years), the judge has the option of imposing a fixed sentence for a year or less, instead of an indeterminate sentence, if that's warranted by the nature and circumstances of the crime, as well as the defendant's history and character.
(N.Y. Penal Law §§ 70.00, 70.06, 70.08, 70.40 (2023).)
Determinate sentences (sometimes called "flat" sentences in New York) are for a set period of time that the convicted person must spend in prison. New York law also requires an additional period of post-release supervision after the person has served the determinate prison sentence.
Under current New York law, judges must use determinate sentences for certain crimes, including some drug felonies, sex felonies, and most violent felonies. The law sets out the range of allowed terms for prison and post-release supervision for these types of crimes, according to their felony classification. The sentence ranges are higher when the defendant has had a previous felony conviction and even higher when that prior conviction was for a violent felony.
With determinate sentences, the judge can pick a sentence within the permissible range, and the defendant must serve that sentence. For example, the allowable term for a Class B felony is at least five years and no more than 25 years. So, if a judge chose 10 years, that would be the fixed amount the defendant must serve.
(N.Y. Penal Law §§ 70.00(6), 70.02, 70.45, 70.70, 70.71, 70.80, 265.13 (2023).)
A sentence of life without parole (for certain serious felonies like murder or terrorism) means what it says—the prisoner will spend their life in prison and never be eligible for parole or conditional release.
(N.Y. Penal Law § 70.00(5) (2023).)
An enhancement tacks on additional punishment for a crime under certain circumstances. Here are a few examples of circumstances that can result in enhancements under New York law.
Prior violent felony. In New York, the minimum and maximum terms for indeterminate sentences are higher if the defendant has been sentenced for a previous felony within the past 10 years.
Three strikes. Like many states, New York has a "three strikes" law that requires the judge to hand out a life sentence (with the possibility of parole) for someone convicted of their third violent felony.
Using a gun. People can get longer sentences if they use a gun during certain types of felonies in New York. For example, using a gun during a Class B violent felony is itself a Class B felony, which will result in five years being added to the defendant's sentence.
(N.Y. Penal Law §§ 170.06, 170.08, 265.09 (2023).)
In addition to a prison sentence—or instead of prison in some cases—judges may impose some combination of other penalties for many felony convictions, including:
Whether the judge will impose an alternative sentence instead of prison will depend on many factors. The judge can grant probation or other non-incarceration options only if it's allowed for the offense the defendant is convicted of. If it's allowed, the judge will consider several factors, including the defendant's criminal history and the circumstances of the offense to determine whether to grant probation.
(N.Y. Penal Law §§ 60.01, 65.00, 65.05, 65.15, 80.00 (2023).)
It's very important that you talk to a qualified criminal defense attorney if you're facing felony charges in New York. The state's sentencing rules are extremely complex and can lead to substantial time in prison if you're convicted. Even after you've served your sentence, a felony conviction can have serious long-term consequences. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can explain how the law applies to your situation, help you prepare the best defense possible under the circumstances, and work with you to negotiate a favorable plea bargain if that's appropriate.
New York may change its sentencing laws at any time, but you can find the current version of any statute discussed in this article by searching the New York Legislature's website. Court decisions might also affect how the state's laws are interpreted and applied, which is another good reason to speak with a lawyer if you're concerned about potential or actual criminal charges.