Due to the fact that there is such a great variety of activities that are considered criminal acts, the legal system has divided criminal law into felonies and misdemeanors based on the seriousness of the crime. Felonies are more serious crimes that are generally punishable by death or prison time that exceeds one year. They include acts that are particularly dangerous in nature or involve the use of a deadly weapon. Murder, treason, assault and battery, the use or sale of illegal drugs, rape, burglary, kidnapping, and arson are usually considered felonies. These are also sometimes termed indictable offenses. Individuals who are found guilty of one of these crimes are called felons.
Within the felony classification, there is a smaller distinction of violent and non-violent felonies. Sometimes felonies will be considered misdemeanors depending on the circumstances. For example, in some areas, possessing a small amount of a certain illegal substance will only be considered a misdemeanor. Some jurisdiction will classify felonies based on seriousness using either letters or numbers. In letter classification, the most severe crimes are labeled A-I or A-II, or they are termed 1st degree, 2nd degree, etc. This terminology usually varies by state and provides each classification of felony with a specific punishment.
Criminal law classifies misdemeanors as less severe crimes, and therefore they carry a less severe punishment. In general, acts that are punishable by incarceration of one year or less are misdemeanors. Petty theft, vandalism, minor drug possession, and disorderly conduct are considered misdemeanors and generally punished with probation or community service.
Punishment may also include loss of privilege. For example, when a person is found guilty of reckless driving, he will often lose his license. If these misdemeanors are committed before a person reaches 18 years of age, then he is able to have his record expunged after his 18th birthday. However, being found guilty of a misdemeanor after this time generally means that this crime will remain on one’s record.
Criminal law classification is used to distinguish between the many acts that are considered crimes. Felonies and misdemeanors are differentiated by the nature of the crime and the punishment it holds. In general, felonies are considered to be more severe crimes than misdemeanors and carry a stricter punishment. Defense attorneys and their legal assistants will be able to aid defendants in distinguishing what criminal classification the defendant’s actions fall under.