Montana Felony Crimes by Class and Sentences

Learn how felony sentencing works in Montana, how previous convictions affect sentences, and when you can get probation.

By , Legal Editor
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated April 26, 2024

In Montana, a felony is a crime that carries a potential sentence of more than a year in state prison and up to life. Montana also has the death penalty.

Felony Crimes and Penalties in Montana

Unlike many states, Montana doesn't group felonies into different classes (such as class A or level 1). Rather, Montana's statutes specify the maximum penalty (incarceration and fine) allowed for each offense. In the rare case where a criminal statute doesn't give the penalty for a felony, the maximum sentence is 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

Here are some examples of felony penalties in Montana statutes:

  • deliberate homicide: death penalty or 10 to 100 years' imprisonment
  • robbery: 2 to 40 years' imprisonment and a $50,000 fine
  • arson: maximum of 20 years' imprisonment and a $50,000 fine
  • unlawful possession of a firearm: 2 to 10 years' imprisonment
  • bail jumping (failure to appear on a felony): maximum of 10 year's imprisonment

Generally speaking, a person serves a felony sentence in state prison, whereas county jails house persons convicted of misdemeanors.

(Mont. Code §§ 45-1-201, 45-2-101, 45-5-401, 45-6-103, 45--7-01, 45-8-313, 45-7-308, 46-18-213 (2024).)

How Felony Sentencing Works in Montana

Within the limits set by the laws for each felony, it's up to the judge to decide the appropriate sentence in any criminal case. So, if the maximum penalty for a crime is 10 years in prison, a judge could order the defendant to serve 2, 5, or 8 years, for example.

Prison or probation. A defendant might serve all, some, or none of their sentence in prison. Some felonies qualify for probation or sentence alternatives to prison time, which may allow a defendant to serve part or all of their sentence in the community. On the flip side, some felonies—many violent felonies and sex offenses—have mandatory minimum sentences. In these cases, judges must send the defendant to prison.

Fines. Judges may typically impose fines instead of, or along with, a sentence of incarceration. But for some serious felonies, a fine may not replace imprisonment. For example, the maximum penalty for burglary is 20 years in prison, a $50,000 fine, or both. Aggravated assault carries the same maximum prison sentence and fine but the fine cannot replace the term of imprisonment.

Restitution. If the crime victim suffered a financial loss, the judge must also order the defendant to pay restitution, along with any other penalties.

(Mont. Code §§ 45-5-202, 45-6-204, 46-18-201, 46-18-231 (2024).)

How Prior Convictions Affect Felony Sentences in Montana

Having a criminal history can increase the penalties a defendant will face in Montana.

Repeat Misdemeanors Can Increase to Felonies

Some crimes that are misdemeanors for a first offense become felonies with second or subsequent offenses. For instance, first-offense stalking is a misdemeanor, but a second conviction within 20 years is treated as a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Misdemeanor sexual assault is another example. Upon a third or subsequent conviction, the offense becomes a felony. (Mont. Code §§ 45-5-220, 45-5-502 (2024).)

Repeat Felony Offenders

If you're guilty of a felony and have a previous conviction for the same crime, you will often face stiffer penalties. For example, the penalty for theft of property worth between $1,500 and $5,000 is up to three years in prison for a first offense and up to five years for a second offense. For a third offense, the person faces a mandatory prison sentence of at least two years and up to five years. (Mont. Code § 45-6-301 (2024).)

Persistent Felony Offender Law

Under Montana's "persistent felony offender" law, a third conviction for violent or sexual felonies calls for a minimum of five years in prison, or 10 years if a previous conviction was less than five years earlier. (Mont. Code § 46-18-502 (2024).)

Other Felony Sentence Enhancements in Montana

Montana imposes a sentence enhancement of two to 10 years in prison, in addition to the sentence for the underlying felony, if:

  • the adult defendant used or brandished a dangerous weapon during the crime, unless the crime is defined to include the use of a weapon (such as assault with a weapon); or
  • it was a hate crime, meaning that it was motivated by the victim's ethnicity, national origin, religion, or involvement in civil rights or human rights actions, or the crime involved damage or attempted damage to a place of religious worship.

The law requires that the underlying and additional sentences run consecutively, which means they must be served one after another (instead of at the same time).

(Mont. Code §§ 45-5-222, 46-18-221 (2024).)

Alternatives to Jail for Felony Sentences in Montana

It's Montana's policy to provide alternatives to prison sentences for nonviolent felons who don't have serious criminal records.

Deferred sentences. If you're convicted of a felony and don't have a prior felony conviction, the judge may defer your sentence for a certain period of time and place you on probation with conditions. Once you complete your probation successfully, your case will be dismissed—which means that this felony conviction won't go on your record.

Probation. Alternatively, the judge may suspend all or part of your sentence. The conviction will be on your record, but you will serve the suspended portion of the sentence on probation in the community rather than in prison.

(Mont. Code §§ 46-18-101, 46-18-201 (2024).)

Getting Help With Felony Charges

A felony conviction can have serious, long-term negative consequences. Even after you get out of prison, having a felony record can make it hard to get a job or rent a place to live. It can also lead to harsher sentences if you are convicted of another crime. If you're facing felony charges, speak with a local criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced attorney can help you navigate the criminal justice system, negotiate a favorable plea bargain if that's appropriate, and protect your rights.

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