In North Carolina, felonies are any crimes that carry prison sentences or the death penalty. The state uses a complex sentencing grid for felonies. Read on to learn how felony sentencing works in North Carolina.
North Carolina organizes felony crimes into 10 different lettered categories—Class A to I—with Class B felonies further divided into B1 and B2. Class A is the most serious felony level, and class I is the least. If a statute states that a crime is a felony but fails to classify it, the offense is punishable as a Class I felony.
North Carolina provides three sentencing ranges for every felony class—a mitigated, presumptive, and aggravated sentence range. Below, we review the presumptive (or standard) sentencing range and the maximum punishment available for each class, rounded to the nearest year. (For sex offenses classified as class B1 to E felonies, the maximum punishment increases by 4 years.)
Class A felonies carry the harshest sentences in North Carolina of life with or without parole or the death penalty. First-degree murder is a class A felony.
The standard sentencing range for a class B1 felony is 16 to 40 years in prison. Class B1 felonies carry a maximum sentence of life without parole. Examples include second-degree murder, first-degree statutory rape, and first-degree forcible rape.
Class B2 felons face a standard sentence of 10 to 26 years in prison, with a maximum punishment of 40 years. Examples of class B2 felonies include trafficking of minors, child abuse (serious bodily injury), and death by unlawful distribution of drugs.
Class C felonies are punishable by a standard prison sentence of 5 to 12 years and a maximum punishment of 19 years. Examples of class C felonies include embezzlement ($100,000 or more), assault with a deadly weapon (intent to kill, inflicts serious injury), and kidnapping.
Class D felons face a standard sentence of 4 to 10 years of prison time and a maximum sentence of 17 years. Examples of class D felonies include voluntary manslaughter, first-degree burglary, and armed robbery.
Class E felony convictions are punishable by a standard sentence of 2 to 4 years' imprisonment. The maximum penalty is 7 years. Examples of class E felonies include discharging a weapon into an occupied structure, breaking and entering a pharmacy to steal drugs, and setting fire to a place of worship.
A person convicted of a class F felony faces one to three years in prison and a maximum punishment of five years. Examples of class F felonies include promoting prostitution, extortion, and repeat stalking offenses.
The standard sentencing range for a class G felony is 10 months to 2 years' imprisonment. Class G felonies carry a maximum punishment of 4 years of prison time. Examples of class G felonies include swatting crimes (public buildings), witness intimidation, and felon in possession of a firearm.
Class H felonies carry a standard sentencing range of 5 to 20 months of incarceration. The maximum penalty is 3 years. Examples of class H felonies include assault by strangulation, possessing stolen goods, dog fighting, and habitual misdemeanor assault.
The least serious felony classification is a class I felony, punishable by 4 to 10 months' imprisonment. The maximum punishment is 2 years. Examples of class I felony crimes include breaking into a vehicle, removing a firearm serial number, and possession of a firearm on school grounds.
North Carolina judges use a sentencing grid to determine the appropriate sentence for a defendant. The grid takes into account several factors, including the severity of the current offense and the number and severity of a defendant's prior offenses.
As noted above, North Carolina's sentencing grid provides three different sentence ranges. Judges will use the presumptive (or standard range) unless the circumstances of the offense suggest a lower (mitigated) or higher (aggravated) sentence is warranted.
Examples of aggravating factors include committing the offense in a cruel manner, targeting a vulnerable victim, or being paid to commit the crime. Mitigating factors tend to show a defendant's genuine remorse, passive participation, willingness to make amends, immature status, or other findings of reduced culpability.
Once the type of sentence is determined, the grid identifies a minimum and maximum sentence based on:
The grid also specifies whether the sentence will be served as active punishment (prison time), intermediate punishment (supervised probation), or community punishment (probation).
The most severe sentences for each felony class apply when the defendant receives an aggravated sentence and has a long criminal history that scores a level VI. On the flip side, the shortest sentences by felony class are permitted when mitigating factors exist and the defendant has no criminal history (level I).
For instance, here are the shortest, longest, and mid-range sentences for a class E felony:
In some instances, the law permits a judge to sentence beyond the limits described above. Enhanced penalties may apply when a defendant:
An enhanced sentence can add time to the minimum and maximum sentences, increase the felony class by one or more levels, or result in a life sentence. The law includes other enhancements as well.
When sentencing someone for a felony conviction, the judge must impose a minimum and maximum sentence term. The judge will also indicate where or how the sentence will be served.
Active punishment. A sentence to active punishment means prison time.
Intermediate punishment. Intermediate punishment generally means supervised probation, which can be part of a recovery court (like a drug court). Probation terms may include short jail stints, house arrest, substance abuse treatment, GPS monitoring, and participation in treatment or educational programming.
Community punishment. Only available for class H and I felony convictions, community punishment involves probation conditions excluding incarceration and recovery courts.
Judges can also order a defendant to pay fines and restitution.
North Carolina's felony laws impose very strict penalties. It's also one of the few states with no statutes of limitations for felonies (which means charges can be filed at any time). If you're being investigated or charged with a felony, talk to a criminal defense attorney. A lawyer can help you understand what you're up against, protect your rights, and zealously defend your case.
(N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 14-7.1, 14-7.6, 14-7.7, 14-7.12, 14-7.31, 14-7.36, 14-7.41, 15A-1340.14, 15A-1340.16, 15A-1340.16A, 15A-1340.16C, 15A-1340.16E, 15A-1340.17 (2023).)