Classifications Of Crimes

Crimes are classified into levels or degrees, depending on their seriousness. The actual classification of a particular offense varies by jurisdiction. If you are to be questioned about possible involvement in a crime, have been arrested or you stand accused of a criminal act, you should consult an experienced attorney as early in the process as possible. A criminal defense lawyer from Law Offices of Barry A. Resnick, PLLC in Farmington Hills, MI, can explain more about the particular crime involved and its possible ramifications.


Under federal criminal law and the laws of about half of the states, a felony is defined as a crime that is punishable by imprisonment of a year or more. Other states may define a felony as a crime that is punishable by death or a prison sentence served in a state penitentiary instead of a local jail. Generally, the most serious crimes are classified as felonies. These are the ones that are particularly violent, involve dangerous weapons or substances (like drugs or explosives), or deal with issues of national security, serious financial impact, or extensive harm to property.

  • Examples of felonies include murder, treason, espionage, rape, arson, burglary, grand larceny and kidnapping.
  • For federal felonies, defendants have the right to be charged by a grand jury. This right varies at the state level depending on the jurisdiction.
  • Because of the seriousness of the offense and the punishment involved, maximum safeguards for a defendant’s rights are built into the prosecution and court procedures in a felony trial.
  • Indigent defendants who cannot afford to hire lawyers and are facing felony charges have the right to free legal defense services provided by public defenders or court-appointed private criminal defense attorneys.
  • In addition to social stigma, long-term consequences of felony convictions may include: the loss of the right to vote, ineligibility for elected office or professional licenses, restrictions on the right to possess weapons, ineligibility for housing/public benefits/educational benefits or certain jobs, immigration problems (up to and including removal), loss of the right to serve as a juror, negative impact on parental rights or divorce proceedings, and the requirement to register with certain criminal registries.
  • Persons accused of felonies have the right to jury trials in all state and federal jurisdictions.

Some crimes, such as murder, can be punished by the death penalty in some jurisdictions. These are often referred to as “capital offenses.”


Under federal criminal law and the criminal laws in about half of the states, a misdemeanor is a crime for which the maximum possible punishment is incarceration for less than a year. In other states, a misdemeanor may be defined as a crime punishable only by a fine or by incarceration in a jail (as opposed to a state prison or penitentiary). Some states have different classes of misdemeanors. For example, there are “petty offenses” that are punishable by six months or less in jail, and “simple” or “minor” misdemeanors that have a maximum punishment of 90 days incarceration.

Generally, misdemeanors are crimes that are less violent or involve lower levels of harm than felonies do. The legal process for misdemeanors is usually simpler than that for felonies, the penalties less severe, and the long-term consequences less harsh.

  • Penalties typically include fines, loss of property, or incarceration in a jail for less than one year.
  • There is no federal right to a grand jury indictment on a misdemeanor charge, and state grand-jury rights for misdemeanors vary.
  • Court procedures may be more relaxed for misdemeanors than for felonies.
  • Indigent defendants are generally only eligible for free state-appointed legal counsel when the misdemeanor charges can result in imprisonment upon conviction.
  • Long-term consequences of a misdemeanor are normally less severe than those for felonies are, although some of the felony consequences listed above may still apply to misdemeanors, depending on the jurisdiction. One consequence unique to a felony conviction, however, is the loss of the right to vote. Conviction on one or more misdemeanor charges will generally have no impact on your voting rights.
  • Generally, if the potential punishment for conviction is imprisonment for less than six months, there is no right to a jury trial.

Minor Criminal Offenses

The least severe infractions are minor traffic offenses and the like. The terminology varies by state, but common terms for these offenses include “petty offenses,” “infractions,” “citable offenses,” or “violations” of local law. Often the only penalty is a fine, and sometimes the infraction may not even be technically considered a crime. Violations of local ordinances like requirements to keep property free from debris or “leash laws” may be punishable by a fine or a short period of incarceration (maximum length of 90 days).

Contact A Criminal Defense Lawyer

It is important to keep in mind that crime categories and classifications vary by jurisdiction and that this article provides general information. To understand the details of a criminal charge in your jurisdiction, talk to a criminal defense attorney from Law Offices of Barry A. Resnick, PLLC in Farmington Hills, MI, who can explain the potential punishment and ramifications.

DISCLAIMER: This site and any information contained herein are intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Seek competent legal counsel for advice on any legal matter.

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