Virginia defines a felony as any crime that can be punished by time in a state correctional facility (prison). Most felonies are designated as Class 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 felonies. However, for a number of felony offenses, the law specifies the penalty on a crime-by-crime basis.
This article will review the basics of felony crimes, penalties, and sentencing in the Commonwealth. To learn more about misdemeanors, check out Virginia Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences.
Virginia divides most felonies into six levels with Class 1 felonies being the most serious and Class 6 the least. Each felony class specifies a sentencing range. Judges can also impose fines of up to $100,000 for convictions of class 1, 2, 3, or 4 felonies and up to $2,500 for class 5 and 6 felony convictions.
Below are the sentencing ranges set for each felony class and examples of crimes that fall under each classification.
Class 1 felonies in Virginia are punishable by life imprisonment with no options for early release. Aggravated murder is an example of a Class 1 felony.
A conviction for a Class 3 felony can result in a prison term of 5 to 20 years. Burglary is typically a Class 3 felony in Virginia. Other examples include providing material support to terrorists and child sex trafficking.
A Class 4 felony is punishable by 2 to 10 years' imprisonment. Shooting at a vehicle, possession of a sawed-off shotgun, and forgery of public documents are all Class 4 felonies in Virginia.
Class 5 felonies are "wobblers"—crimes that can be either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on how the judge or jury decides to treat a conviction. Class 5 felonies in Virginia are punishable by:
Manslaughter, extortion, and carrying a weapon at a riot are Class 5 felonies.
Class 6 felonies are the least serious felonies in Virginia. Like Class 5 felonies, Class 6 felonies are wobblers, punishable by:
Willful discharge of a firearm in public, strangulation, and a third DUI in 10 years are examples of Class 6 felonies.
As noted above, Virginia doesn't designate a class for every felony. For certain felonies, the law specifies the penalty in the criminal statute. Some examples are listed below.
When a judge sentences a defendant, the judge must decide not only the length of incarceration but also whether to impose a prison or probation sentence.
In most instances, a judge will impose the sentence recommended by what are referred to as sentencing worksheets. A state sentencing commission developed these worksheets to provide consistency, uniformity, and fairness in sentencing. The worksheet calculates a sentence and score based on the particular convicted offense and other factors. The commission has created over a dozen worksheets based on the type of offense. For instance, they have assault, burglary, larceny, and drug worksheets, to name a few.
After a felony conviction, the judge inputs information into the applicable worksheet. This information might include the severity of the crime (violent or non-violent), the offender's past convictions, and other factors (such as victim injuries, property damage, or use of weapons). The worksheet gives the offender a score that will be used by the judge to determine the appropriate sentence length and disposition (prison or probation). Judges don't have to follow these recommendations but must provide reasons if they decide not to.
Typically, the judge will then announce the sentence and whether it will be executed (meaning enforced right away; going to prison) or suspended (putting the prison sentence on hold and ordering probation).
If the judge orders probation, the judge is putting the prison sentence on hold and giving the offender a chance to serve their time in the community. The prison sentence is suspended only as long as the defendant complies with the conditions of probation. Typical conditions include committing no new crimes, meeting regularly with a probation officer, attending counseling or treatment, refraining from using drugs or alcohol, and staying away from victims. In some cases, probation can include jail time.
If the probationer commits a major violation (such as being arrested for a new crime), the judge can revoke probation and send the defendant to prison to serve their suspended sentence. Punishment for technical violations (such as missing a meeting) may result in jail time or modification of conditions. Upon a third technical violation, the judge can revoke probation.
For those sentenced to prison, they must serve at least 85% of their sentence. Virginia doesn't have a parole system. Rather, it allows inmates to earn sentence credits that reduce their confinement term by up to 15%. Inmates earn sentencing credits at different rates depending on their convicted offense and behavior in prison.
After being released from prison, a defendant will also be required to complete a period of post-release supervision of 6 months to 3 years.
If you are charged with a felony, you should contact a Virginia criminal defense attorney. An experienced attorney can tell you what to expect in court and how best to protect your rights. The consequences of a felony conviction are significant and can last long after a prison sentence is served or a fine is paid. Felony convictions can make it hard (or impossible) to obtain or keep certain jobs or professional licenses, or even run for public office.
(Va. Code §§ 18.2-8, 18.2-9, 18.2-10, 19.2-295.2, 19.2-297.1, 19.2-298.01, 19.2-303, 19.2-303.1 (2022).)