What Is a Felony? Definition, Classifications, and Examples

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A felony is the most serious offense in the criminal justice system. State and federal jurisdictions treat felonies differently, offering unique sentencing guidelines and categories for these criminal offenses.

Key Takeaways

  • Felonies are serious criminal offenses committed at the state or federal level. They are punishable by at least one year in prison.
  • Felonies can be grouped into classes, degrees, or levels to determine sentencing. Each state has its own system of categorizing felonies, and classes are not comparable between states
  • Some states do not rank felonies and assign individual sentence ranges to each crime.

Felony Definition

Criminal offenses are grouped into felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions. The key difference between each classification is not only the seriousness of the crime, but the length of the corresponding punishment. Misdemeanor offenses are often punishable by less than a year in prison. Sentencing for felonies, on the other hand, generally starts at one year.

Most states rank felonies from most serious to least serious. Some states use a letter classification system to group felonies based on minimum and maximum punishment. Other states use a level or a degree system. Some states skip classification and simply determine a sentence for each individual felony.

States using a letter system might label their felonies Classes A-D, Classes A-E, and sometimes even Classes A-H. States may also have special subsections of Class A like AA, or A-I and A-II. Classes are not comparable between states. For example, New York’s Class C might consist of different felonies than Connecticut’s Class C. Additionally, the same crimes carry different sentences in each state.

Class A Felonies

Class A felonies are the most serious crimes in the class system. They are also the most uniform between states because they feature the top offenses. Examples of crimes that generally reach this level include murder, rape, kidnapping, and arson.

If someone is convicted of a Class A violent felony in New York, for example, they can be sentenced anywhere from 20-25 years to life in prison.

Some examples of Class A-I felonies in New York are:

  • Murder in the first degree: A person intentionally causes the death of someone else. In New York, only specific murders qualify as “first-degree.” The qualification typically depends on the victim. Intentionally causing the death of a police officer, an employee of a correctional facility, a witness to a crime, or emergency personnel would be considered first-degree murder.
  • Kidnapping in the first degree: A person abducts someone and either tries to elicit ransom money, restrains the victim for more than 12 hours, or the victim dies during the abduction.
  • Arson in the first degree: A person intentionally uses an incendiary device to damage a building or vehicle, with the knowledge that another person could be present, and that person gets injured.

Class B Felonies

Class B felonies are less serious than Class A, but can still be considered highly offensive. Class B felonies might include manslaughter, robbery, distribution of narcotics, and attempted class A felony.

If someone is convicted of a Class B felony in Connecticut, for example, they could receive a sentence of 1 to 40 years in prison and up to $15,000 in fines.

Some examples of Class B felonies in Connecticut are:

  • Manslaughter in the first degree with a firearm: A person armed with a firearm intends to cause serious injury to someone and causes their death or the death of a third person.
  • Sexual assault in a spousal or cohabitation relationship: A spouse or cohabitant forces their counterpart to engage in sexual activity under the threat of physical injury.
  • Burglary in the first degree (when armed with explosive, deadly weapon, or dangerous instrument): A person armed with a dangerous implement unlawfully enters a property with the intent to commit a crime.

Class C Felonies

Class C felonies are less serious than Class B felonies. Class C can include bribery, forgery, criminal tampering, and child custody interference.

If someone is convicted of a Class C felony in Kentucky, for example, they can receive a sentence of 5 to 10 years in prison and a possible fine between $1,000 and $10,000.

Some examples of Class C felonies in Kentucky are:

  • Forgery in the first degree: A person knowingly makes fake money, valuables, or securities issued by the government
  • Theft by deception or extortion of $10,000 or more: A person knowingly steals over $10,000 from someone with or without their knowledge.
  • Bribery of a public servant: A public servant accepts a benefit in exchange for a service in the form of a vote, opinion, or exercise of discretion.

Class D Felonies

Class D felonies are the least serious crimes in an A through D ranking. Class D felonies may include jumping bail, solicitation, and stalking.

If someone is convicted a Class D felony in Connecticut, for example, they can receive a sentence of 1 to 5 years in prison and up to $5,000 in fines. 

Some examples of Class D felonies in Connecticut are:

  • Carrying a handgun without a permit
  • Criminal use of a firearm or electronic defense weapon: A person uses a firearm or electronic defense weapon while committing a Class A, B, C, or unclassified felony.

Unclassified Felonies

Within every class system, there are unclassified crimes. These crimes don’t fall into a particular category and the state generally offers individual minimum and maximum sentences for each unclassified felony.

Felonies by Degree

Degree systems can be used in the place of or instead of class systems. In Ohio, for example, a crime categorized as a first-degree felony would be included in Class A in another state.

However, some states also rank individual offenses by degree. The most common example would be murder. Someone might be indicted for first-degree murder, but a state categorizes that crime as a Class A felony. In this situation, first-degree refers to the circumstances of the crime, not the sentencing rule. The class will still guide sentencing.

Famous Felony Sentences

Chris Brown, Martha Stewart, and Mark Wahlberg have been convicted of felonies.

In 2004, Martha Stewart was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction, and making false statements to federal investigators—federal felony charges related to insider trading. She received a sentence of five months in prison and five months in home confinement. Federal sentencing varies widely based on the crime and the perpetrator. Federal Sentencing Guidelines use a point-based leveling system. Certain crimes start out with a base number and judges will add or subtract from that number by considering mitigating circumstances. For example, a judge may consider the perpetrator's previous criminal history and whether the perpetrator has accepted responsibility for their actions. In Stewart's case, the judge would have taken a number of factors into account, before deciding on the ultimate sentence. Stewart's relatively short sentence reflects the severity of the crime, as well as Stewart's character.

In 2009, Chris Brown pled guilty to felony assault against his former girlfriend. He was tried in Los Angeles Superior Court. Brown accepted a plea deal and received a sentence of five years' probation and six months of community service. California does not classify felonies into categories. In California, someone can be charged with a felony if a crime may be punishable by incarceration in a state prison. In the case of assault, it may be punishable by a fine or a prison sentence. Brown received probation as a result of the deal he made.

Mark Wahlberg pleaded guilty to felony assault when he was sixteen and was sentenced to two years at Suffolk County Deer Island House of Correction. He only served 45 days in the facility. Massachusetts, like California, does not use a classifications system to rank felonies. In Massachusetts, someone may be charged with a felony if they commit a crime punishable by imprisonment. Wahlberg was charged as an adult, rather than a juvenile because he was only two months shy of his 17th birthday when he committed the crime. In 2018, the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission's Master Crime List recommended a maximum sentence of 2 1/2 years in prison for felony aggravated assault.

Sources

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  • “18 U.S. Code § 3559 - Sentencing Classification of Offenses.” Legal Information Institute, Legal Information Institute, www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/3559.
  • Hays, Constance L. “Martha Stewart's Sentence: The Overview; 5 Months in Jail, and Stewart Vows, 'I'll Be Back'.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 July 2004, www.nytimes.com/2004/07/17/business/martha-stewart-s-sentence-overview-5-months-jail-stewart-vows-ll-be-back.html.
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  • Bloom, Leslie. “Kentucky Felony Penalties For Class C Felony Charges.” Legal Beagle, 14 Feb. 2019, legalbeagle.com/6619328-kentucky-penalties-class-felony-charges.html.
  • Itzkoff, Dave. “Chris Brown Pleads Guilty to Assault.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 June 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/06/24/arts/music/24arts-CHRISBROWNPL_BRF.html
  • Parker, Ryan. “Mark Wahlberg Seeks Pardon of Felony Conviction for 1988 Assault.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 5 Dec. 2014, www.latimes.com/entertainment/gossip/la-et-mg-mark-wahlberg-assault-pardon-20141204-story.html.