The Main Classifications of Criminal Offenses

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In the United States, there are three primary classifications of criminal offenses — felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions. Each classification is distinguished from each other by the seriousness of the offense and the amount of punishment for which someone convicted of the crime can receive.

What Is a Criminal Offense?

Criminal offenses are further classified as property crimes or personal crimes. Elected officials on the federal, state, and local levels pass laws that establish which behavior constitutes a crime and what the punishment will be for someone who is found guilty of those crimes.

What Is a Felony?

Felonies are the most serious classification of crimes, punishable by incarceration of more than a year in prison and in some cases, life in prison without parole or capital punishment. Both property crimes and person crimes can be felonies. Murder, rape, and kidnapping are felony crimes. Armed robbery and grand theft can also be felonies.

Not only can the person who committed the crime be charged with a felony, so can anyone who aided or abetted the felon before or during the crime and anyone who became accessories to the crime after it was committed, such as those who help the felon avoid capture.

Most states have different classifications of felonies, with increasing penalties for the most serious crimes. Each class of felony crimes has minimum and maximum sentencing guidelines.

Crimes that are classified as felonies include:

  • Aggravated Assault
  • Animal Cruelty
  • Arson
  • Drug Distribution
  • Elder Abuse
  • Felony Assault
  • Grand Theft
  • Kidnapping
  • Manslaughter
  • Manufacturing of drugs
  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Tax Evasion
  • Treason

Most states also classify felonies by capital felony, followed by first through fourth degree, depending on the severity.

Although each state varies when determining the degree of a felony, most states with capital felony define it as a crime, such as murder, that qualifies for the death penalty or life without parole. Common first-degree felonies include arson, rape, murder, treason, and kidnapping; Second-degree felonies can include arson, manslaughter, drug manufacturing or distribution, child pornography, and child molestation. Third and fourth-degree felonies can include pornography, involuntary manslaughter, burglary, larceny, driving under the influence, and assault and battery.

Prison Sentences for Felonies

Each state determines the prison sentence handed down for felony crimes based on guidelines determined by the degree of the crime.

Class A is usually used to classify the most serious felonies, such as first-degree murder, rape, involuntary servitude of a minor, kidnapping in the first degree, or other crimes that are considered to be heinous. Some Class A felonies carry the toughest penalties, such as the death penalty. Each state has its own set of classifications of criminal laws.

A Class B felony is a classification of crimes that are severe, yet not the most serious of crimes. Because a Class B felony is a felony, it carries tough penalties, such as a lengthy prison sentence and extreme fines. Here is an example of Texas and then Florida's felony sentencing guidelines.

Texas Sentencing:

  • Capital Felony: Death or life without parole.
  • First-Degree Felony: Five to 99 years incarceration and up to a $10,000 fine.
  • Second-Degree Felony: Two to 20 years incarceration and up to a $10,000 fine.
  • Third-Degree Felony: Two to 10 years incarceration and up to a $10,000 fine.

Florida Maximum Sentencing:

  • Life Felony: Up to life in prison incarceration and up to a $15,000 fine.
  • First-Degree Felony: Up to 30 years incarceration and up to a $10,000 fine.
  • Second-Degree Felony: Up to 15 years incarceration and up to a $10,000 fine.
  • Third-Degree Felony: Up to five years incarceration and up to a $5,000 fine.

What Is a Misdemeanor?

Misdemeanors are crimes that do not rise to the severity of a felony. They are lesser crimes for which the maximum sentence is 12 months or less in jail. The distinction between misdemeanors and felonies lies within the seriousness of the crime. Aggravated assault (beating someone with a baseball bat, for example) is a felony, while simple battery (slapping someone in the face) is a misdemeanor.

But some crimes that are usually treated as misdemeanors in the courts can rise to the level of a felony under certain circumstances. For example, in some states, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor, but possession of more than an ounce is considered possession with intent to distribute and is treated as a felony.

Likewise, an arrest for driving under the influence is usually a misdemeanor, but if anyone was hurt or killed or if it is not the driver's first DUI offense, the charge can become a felony.

What Is an Infraction?

Infractions are crimes for which jail time is usually not a possible sentence. Sometimes known as petty crimes, infractions are often punishable by fines, which can be paid without even going to court.

Most infractions are local laws or ordinances passed as a deterrence to dangerous or nuisance behavior, such as setting speed limits in school zones, no parking zones, traffic laws, or anti-noise ordinances. Infractions can also include operating a business without the proper license or improperly disposing of trash.

Under some circumstances, an infraction can rise to the level of a more serious crime. Running a stop sign might be a minor infraction, but not stopping for the sign and causing damage or injury is a more serious offense.

Capital Crimes

Capital crimes are those which are punishable by death. They are, of course, felonies. The difference between other classes of felonies and capital felonies is the fact that those accused of capital crimes can pay the ultimate penalty, the loss of their life.

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Montaldo, Charles. "The Main Classifications of Criminal Offenses." ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2021, Montaldo, Charles. (2021, January 26). The Main Classifications of Criminal Offenses. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "The Main Classifications of Criminal Offenses." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 7, 2021).