States distinguish felony offenses from misdemeanors based on the maximum penalty allowed under the law. In North Dakota, a misdemeanor carries a maximum possible sentence of 360 days’ imprisonment. Any crime with a penalty above 360 days and up to life is a felony.
North Dakota organizes felony crimes into four separate categories: class AA, class A, class B, and class C felonies. Class AA is the highest felony level and class C is the lowest. This article will discuss felony sentencing, parole, and expungement in North Dakota. For information on misdemeanors, see North Dakota Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences.
Under North Dakota’s sentencing system, lawmakers define crimes and their felony classifications in statute. That classification sets a maximum penalty. Judges can impose any sentence up to that maximum.
The maximum penalties by felony class are as follows:
If the law provides that an offense is a felony but doesn’t specify its classification, the crime defaults to a class C felony. (N.D. Cent. Code §§ 12.1-32-01, 12.1-32-12 (2020).)
When imposing a felony sentence, judges can order one or more of the following:
Generally, a judge will hand down a sentence that includes a term of imprisonment and then either “execute or stay” the prison sentence. Executing the sentence means the offender will go to prison. Staying a sentence means the judge will suspend the prison sentence and give the offender a chance to serve the sentence in the community on probation.
When a judge stays a prison sentence, the judge conditions the stay (or suspension) on the defendant's agreement to abide by the probation terms. Basically, the prison sentence continues to hang over the defendant’s head as an incentive to comply with probation.
Probation can be supervised or unsupervised. Conditions might include remaining crime-free, serving a jail sentence, completing community service hours or treatment, abstaining from alcohol or drugs, maintaining employment, attending school, treatment, or counseling, or being placed on electronic monitoring or home confinement.
Felony probation can last five to ten years, depending on the offense and the offender’s criminal history. If the offender successfully completes probation, the sentence is also complete. Violations of probation, however, can result in additional probation conditions, extended probation term, or revocation of probation. Upon revocation of probation, the judge ends the stay and executes the sentence.
If the judge orders the sentence executed (either at the initial sentencing or after revoking probation), the offender will start serving the prison sentence. The amount of time the offender spends in prison will depend on the maximum sentence imposed by the judge and whether the offender qualifies for parole. (More on parole below.)
For most felonies, the judge has discretion on whether to stay or execute a sentence. But the law provides a few exceptions.
Presumptive probation. The law presumes that class C felony sentences should be stayed (called presumed probation), but a judge can override this presumption if the circumstances warrant it.
Mandatory prison. Some crimes specify mandatory prison terms, including minimums, which cannot be stayed or can make an offender ineligible for parole. For instance, the law requires offenders convicted of armed felonies to serve their sentences in prison without parole. Armed felonies also carry minimum sentences of two years for class C felonies and four years for all other classifications.
(N.D. Cent. Code §§ 12.1-32-02.1, 12.1-32-07 (2020).)
North Dakota is among the majority of states that use “indeterminate sentencing.” Other states use a system of “determinate sentencing.” In states with determinate sentences, the judge announces an offender’s prison term at sentencing and the offender’s release date is pretty straightforward. Typically, the offender must spend around 60 to 85% of the sentence behind bars and then is eligible for supervised release. For indeterminate sentences, the judge announces a prison term or range, but a parole board will determine the offender’s release date—making the release date for an indeterminate sentence unpredictable.
In North Dakota, judges order an imprisonment term (say 15 years) rather than a range (such as 10 to 20 years). Judges cannot impose a minimum sentence term unless allowed by statute, such as in the armed felony example above. If the judge stays the prison sentence, the judge retains control over the offender's sentence. But once the offender goes to prison, decisions are out of the hands of judges and into the hands of prison officials and parole boards.
If the judge executes the sentence, the offender goes to prison and faces the full sentence term behind bars unless released earlier by the parole board. The parole board sets release eligibility rules.
With the exception of inmates not eligible for parole or those serving a minimum sentence, inmates become eligible for parole review within 90 days of entering prison. All inmates get an initial parole review that will determine if and when they are eligible for parole consideration. If the inmate’s sentence qualifies, the inmate receives a future parole review date.
The board can conduct parole reviews via paper or in person. It meets once a month.
(N.D. Cent. Code §§ 12-59-01 and following (2020).)
In 2019, North Dakota lawmakers enacted a law authorizing expungement (or sealing) of felony criminal records if the person remains crime-free for five years after completion of the sentence. (Sex offenses cannot be expunged, and violent felony offenses cannot be expunged for 10 years.) Sealing a felony record doesn’t make it disappear, but the law prohibits disclosure of its contents and existence without a court order. (N.D. Cent. Code §§ 12-60.1-01, 12-60.1-02 (2020).)
Prosecutors face time limits for filing criminal charges—called statutes of limitations. Criminal charges filed after the time limit can be dismissed. North Dakota law requires prosecutors to file most felony charges within three years of the commission or discovery of the offense. Longer time limits apply to charges for human trafficking, gross sexual imposition, and sex abuse crimes against minors. Murder charges have no time limit and can be filed at any time. (N.D. Cent. Code § 9-04-02 (2020).)
If you’re convicted of a felony, you face significant penalties that can permanently change the course of your life. Speak with a local criminal defense attorney if you've been arrested for, charged with, or investigated for a crime.