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 by the seriousness of an offense and the amount of punishment for which someone convicted of the crime can receive.

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 behaviors constitute 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, capital punishment or life in prison without parole. Both property crimes and personal 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, but 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 guidelines for minimum and maximum sentencings.

Examples of Felonies

  • 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.

Sentencing for Felonies

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.

Capital crimes are felonies that are punishable by death. 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.

Each state determines the prison sentence handed down for felony crimes based on guidelines that assess 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 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. See Texas and Florida's felony sentencing guidelines below.

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 Sentencing

  • Capital felony: Death penalty or life in prison
  • 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 specifics requirements of misdemeanors vary by state. California, for example, defines a misdemeanor as:

"...a crime for which the maximum sentence is no more than one year in county jail. A misdemeanor is more serious than an infraction but less serious than a felony. Common examples are DUI, shoplifting and domestic violence that does not result in a serious injury."

The distinction between misdemeanors and felonies lies in the seriousness of the crime. Aggravated assault (beating someone with a baseball bat, for example) is a felony, while battery (slapping someone in the face) is a misdemeanor.

But some crimes that are usually treated as misdemeanors in court 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 treated as a felony.

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

What Is an Infraction?

Infractions are crimes for which jail time is not usually 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 violations of local laws or ordinances passed as a deterrence to dangerous or disruptive behavior. Such laws include speed limits in school zones, no parking zones, traffic ordinances, and anti-noise ordinances. Breaking any of these would be considered an infraction. Operating a business without the proper licenses or improperly disposing of trash would also be an infraction.

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.

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Montaldo, Charles. "The Main Classifications of Criminal Offenses." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Montaldo, Charles. (2021, September 8). The Main Classifications of Criminal Offenses. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "The Main Classifications of Criminal Offenses." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).