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What Distinguishes a Misdemeanor From a Felony?

Most criminal systems for states across the United States divide their crimes into several different categories depending on how serious they are. This categorization determines how the court system treats a particular case, so it is important to understand the differences. As a general rule, however, these crimes are differentiated by how much potential jail time (if any) an offender could face.

Infractions: Tickets and Fines

Infractions: In general, these are the least serious type of crime. Typically, a police officer will see someone doing something wrong, write a ticket and hand it to the person. The person then has to pay a fine. Infractions usually involve little to no time in court (much less jail), and include things like traffic tickets, jaywalking, and some minor drug possession charges in some states. However, if infractions remain unaddressed or unpaid, the law typically provides for an increasing range of fines and potential penalties.

Misdemeanor vs. Felony Offenses

Misdemeanors: Misdemeanors are more serious than infractions. They are usually defined as a crime which is punishable by up to a year in jail time. Sometimes that jail time is served in a local county jail instead of a high security prison. Other states define a misdemeanor as a crime that is not a felony or an infraction. Prosecutors generally have a great degree of flexibility in deciding what crimes to charge, how to punish them, and what kinds of plea bargains to negotiate.

Felonies: Felonies are the most serious types of crimes. They are usually defined by the fact that they are punishable by prison sentences of greater than one year. Since the punishments can be so severe, court room procedure must be strictly observed so that the defendants' rights stay protected. Felonies are usually crimes that are viewed severely by society, and include crimes such as murder, rape, burglary, kidnapping, or arson. However, felonies can also be punished in a range of ways so that the punishment matches the severity of the crime.

For more information about crimes and the criminal process, check out FindLaw.com's section on Criminal Law.

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