In Wisconsin, misdemeanors are any crimes punishable by one year or less in a county or local jail. The law divides misdemeanors into three classifications: classes A, B, and C. Felonies (more serious crimes) carry a sentence ranging from more than a year and up to life in prison.
This article will review misdemeanor classifications, penalties, and sentencing options in Wisconsin.
For many misdemeanors (primarily those in Wisconsin's criminal code), the law specifies whether it's a class A, B, or C misdemeanor, and this classification corresponds with a maximum penalty listed in statute (see below). Outside the criminal code (for instance, the vehicle code), the law may provide a sentence on an offense-by-offense basis, rather than specify a classification. And then there are some misdemeanors that don't specify any classification or penalty. For these unclassified misdemeanors, the punishment defaults to a maximum 30-day jail sentence and a $500 fine.
Below are examples of the main misdemeanor classifications and their penalties, as well as examples of misdemeanor penalties specified for individual offenses.
Class A misdemeanors carry up to nine months in jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Battery, fourth-degree sexual assault, petty theft, and violation of a restraining order are examples of class A misdemeanors.
Class B misdemeanors are punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Theft of wireless or cable services, disorderly conduct, and criminal trespass to a medical facility are class B misdemeanors.
Class C misdemeanors are punishable by a maximum 30-day jail sentence and a $500 fine. Drinking alcohol on public transportation, vagrancy, and state fair park violations are Class C misdemeanors.
Below are examples of misdemeanor offenses with specified penalties.
Wisconsin law provides enhanced felony penalties for certain misdemeanor offenses where the defendant has prior convictions, targets a protected person, or causes serious harm or risk of serious harm.
Prior convictions. Several offenses carry increasing penalties when a person repeatedly commits the same offense. For instance, a first offense for intimidating a victim carries a class A misdemeanor penalty, but a second offense bumps it up to a felony.
Repeaters. A general felony enhancement applies when a person commits any fourth misdemeanor in five years. The law allows the judge to impose a sentence of two years' imprisonment. A similar enhancement applies upon a third conviction for any misdemeanor domestic abuse crime.
Increased harm or risk of harm. Battery, physical abuse, and related offenses generally provide increasing penalties that correspond with increasing levels of bodily harm. Acts that carry a substantial risk of harm can also result in increased penalties. For instance, a defendant faces an additional six months' incarceration for committing a misdemeanor while possessing a deadly weapon.
Hate crimes and protected persons. An offender who targets a victim based on their vulnerability or profession can face felony penalties rather than misdemeanor charges. For instance, a class A misdemeanor battery offense increases to a felony when the victim is a protected person (such as an elderly victim, emergency responder, or medical provider). Class A misdemeanors also bump up to felonies with a 2-year prison sentence if the offense was a hate crime.
Not all misdemeanor charges mean jail time. For some nonviolent, first-time offenses, a person might avoid criminal court and a conviction altogether through pretrial diversion (also called deferred prosecution). Such programs are optional, and not every prosecutor's office offers them.
Diversion programs are basically contracts between the prosecutor (district attorney) and the defendant. The prosecutor agrees to hold off on pursuing the criminal charges and the defendant agrees to abide by the terms of the diversion program. Terms might include going to treatment or counseling, completing community service hours, paying fees, or attending educational courses. The prosecutor agrees to drop the charges if the defendant successfully completes the diversion program. A violation, however, means the prosecutor can resume the criminal proceedings.
For defendants who end up in court, judges look to many factors when making sentencing decisions, such as the circumstances of the crime, the defendant's criminal history, the impact on victims, and the defendant's remorse or lack thereof. As with misdemeanor charges, not all misdemeanor convictions lead to jail time. A judge might decide that an alternative to jail could be beneficial to the defendant and safe for the community.
Typical misdemeanor sentencing options include:
Similar to pretrial diversion offered by a prosecutor, a judge may offer an offender a chance to participate in a treatment alternative or diversion program in lieu of jail time. In some cases, a judge might agree to hold off on entering a sentencing recommendation and dismiss the case if the defendant successfully completes the program. The types of programs offered vary by county. Some examples include treatment court (to address underlying addiction or mental health issues), volunteers in probation (a mentoring program), and community service programming.
A judge can also order a defendant to participate in any of the above treatment alternatives and diversion programs as part of a misdemeanor probation sentence. Here, the judge orders the sentence and holds off on sending the defendant to jail as long as the defendant abides by the program terms and other probation conditions. Some probation programs involve intensive supervision and case management.
The length of probation varies depending on the convicted offense and the defendant's prior criminal history. The judge must order a minimum probation term of 6 months and up to two years for misdemeanor offenses involving a firearm, domestic abuse, sexual assault, and impaired driving. For repeat misdemeanor offenders, the maximum probation term can be increased by one or two years. In all other cases, the maximum term will be one year.
Successful completion of probation generally still results in a conviction but avoids all or some jail time. For a violation, a judge may impose additional probation conditions or revoke probation and send the defendant to jail.
Any criminal conviction, even for a misdemeanor, can have a negative impact on your life. Wisconsin law offers very few chances to expunge or seal a criminal record, which means a misdemeanor record can seriously impact your future. If you are charged with a misdemeanor, contact a Wisconsin criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced attorney can tell you what to expect in court and help you successfully navigate the criminal justice system.
(Wis. Stat. §§ 29.971, 30.80, 165.95, 165.955, 233.33, 939.51, 939.61, 971.37, 973.09, 973.11, 973.20 (2021).)