Massachusetts Felony Crimes and Sentences

Learn which crimes are considered felonies in Massachusetts and how sentencing works in these criminal cases.

Massachusetts treats any crime as a felony if carries potential punishment of incarceration in state prison. (Any other crime is considered a misdemeanor in the Commonwealth.)

Unlike many states, Massachusetts doesn’t group felonies in different classes for purposes of sentencing. Instead, each criminal statute includes the range of possible penalties for that offense. The maximum penalty determines whether the crime is considered a felony, regardless of the actual sentence a judge hands down. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 274, § 1 (2020)).

How Felony Sentencing Works in Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, the laws covering felonies usually give a range of possible prison sentences. Some crimes only have an upper limit, while others include a mandatory minimum sentence.

When most convicted felons receive a sentence of imprisonment, the sentence must be “indeterminate,” meaning that it includes a minimum and maximum term within the range allowed by the relevant statute. For “habitual criminals,” however, the sentence must be for the maximum term allowed under the law for that crime. Defendants are considered habitual criminals if they’re convicted of a felony and have two previous convictions for which they were sentenced to at least three years in state or federal prison. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 279, §§ 24, 25 (2020).)

The laws for some felonies permit an alternate sentence to a house of correction (or county jail) instead of prison. For instance, when a defendant is convicted of assault and battery that resulted serious injury, the judge may hand down a sentence to state prison (with a minimum term of at least a year and a maximum term of no more than five years) or to a house of correction (with a maximum term no longer than 30 months), and/or a fine of up to $5,000. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 265, § 13A (2020).)

Sentencing Alternatives in Massachusetts

Massachusetts law allows sentencing alternatives to prison, including:

  • Suspended sentences. For some felonies, the judge may suspend all of part of a prison sentence and place the defendant on probation with conditions. Failure to meet those conditions would mean going back to prison.
  • Conditional sentences. For felonies that are punishable by fines or imprisonment in either prison or jail, the judge may hand down a conditional sentence ordering the defendant to pay a fine within a certain limited period of time; failure to do so would mean the defendant has to serve the jail or prison time set in the sentence.

Also, once inmates in state prison have served enough of their sentence that they would be eligible for parole within 18 months, they may be eligible to participate in education, training, or work programs outside of prison (unless they were convicted of certain crimes). The time spent participating in those programs will be credited toward the prison sentence. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 127, § 49; Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 279, §§ 1, 10 (2020).)

Examples of Penalties for Felonies in Massachusetts

Following are some examples of the potential penalties in Massachusetts for certain felonies:

  • first degree murder — life in prison without the possibility of parole
  • vehicular manslaughter — mandatory minimum five years in prison, with a maximum up to 20 years, plus a fine of up to $25,000 and suspension of the defendant’s driver’s license from 15 years to life
  • rape that doesn’t result in serious physical injury but does involve force or threats — maximum 20 years for a first offense
  • stalking in violation of a domestic violence protective order — incarceration in jail or prison for at least one year and no more than five years
  • assault with a dangerous weapon — up to five years in prison, up to 30 months in jail, or a fine up to $1,000
  • theft (called larceny in Massachusetts) of a gun or property worth more than $1,200 — up to five years in prison or a maximum $2,500 fine and up to two years in jail; and
  • abandoning a child without support or failing to pay a child-support order — up to five years in prison or 30 months in jail, and/or a fine of up to $5,000.

(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 265, §§ 2, 13 ½, 15B, 22, 43; Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 266, § 30, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 273, §§ 1, 15A (2020).)

Criminal Statute of Limitations

Like other states, Massachusetts has a deadline (known as a statute of limitations) for bringing charges in most felony cases. The “clock” starts running when the alleged crime took place, but some circumstances may extend the deadline. The criminal statute of limitations in Massachusetts varies for different crimes. Certain very serious crimes have no time limit, but there may be extra evidence requirements for prosecuting some of these crimes (such as child rape) after 27 years.

The Value of Good Representation

A felony conviction becomes part of your permanent criminal record and can have serious, long-term consequences. If you’re facing felony charges, you should speak with a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. An experienced attorney can determine whether you have any grounds for dismissal of the charges, explore plea options, or represent you at trial. Only someone familiar with the local criminal court system and cases like yours will know how good your chances are for a favorable outcome in court or in plea bargaining. A knowledgeable attorney will take all of this into consideration, assist you in making decisions about your case, and protect your rights.

Look Out for Legal Changes

States can change their laws at any time. If you want to check the current version of any statute mentioned in this article, you can find it with this search tool. But court opinions may affect how judges interpret and apply the law, which is another good reason to speak with a knowledgeable attorney if you're concerned about actual or potential criminal charges.

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