People unfamiliar with the criminal justice system often use the terms “misdemeanor” and “felony” interchangeably. While both words denote that a crime or infraction may have been committed in the past, they’re not equally severe and aren’t subject to the same types of legal consequences. These words are used to put certain acts into a category.
Misdemeanors are more serious than offenses such as parking on the wrong side of the street or getting a ticket for other small offenses (broken tail light, etc), but they are still less serious than a felony. Punishment often includes fines, less than a year in jail, probation, and/or restitution (paying back the person who experienced the offense)
State governments may define the severity of misdemeanors distinctly. You may have heard of terms such as first, second, third, fourth degree, and minor misdemeanors. States have a maximum amount of fines and/or jail time they can sentence a person who has committed a misdemeanor, depending on the offense caused.
Felonies are more serious, and carry larger sentences. They too, have degrees of severity. People with a felony on their record also face additional restrictions even after their release from jail:
- Loss of the right to buy or own firearms
- Loss of their right to vote
- No longer eligible for military, police, and education jobs
Because of their grave consequences, felonies are sorted into federal, non-violent, violent, and unclassified categories. Like misdemeanors, there are up to four degrees of felonies in the criminal justice system and judges have maximum sentence and fine limits for each type of felony.
Only the worst crimes, aggravated murder and murder, can carry life sentences for those who are convicted. The death penalty is also a possible punishment for certain felonies.