In the American legal system, crimes are grouped into three categories, depending on their seriousness: felony, misdemeanor, and infraction. While certain crimes may be put into different categories in different states, the distinctions between these three levels of crime remain fairly standard around the country. Read on for more information about what sets these three types of crimes apart.
The most serious, dangerous crimes are categorized as felonies, including rape, murder, arson, and drug cultivation or manufacturing. In some states, these offenses can even be subject to the death sentence, depending on the circumstances. To qualify as a felony, a crime must be punishable by at least one year in a state prison. In general, felonies are characterized by force or threat of force against another person.
Misdemeanors are less serious offenses, and correspondingly they are punishable by less than a year in jail or a fine. Examples of misdemeanors include most drunk driving charges, public intoxication, and simple assault. These crimes are generally not as violent as felonies. In some cases, misdemeanors can become felonies; these crimes are called “wobblers,” and their sentencing depends on aggravating factors. For example, a first-time drunk driving offense is generally a misdemeanor. However, in many states, the offense can become a felony if the driver causes injury to another person while driving under the influence, or if his or her blood alcohol level is high enough.
Infractions are the lowest level of criminal offense, and they generally include traffic offenses, such as speeding. Punishable by a fine, these crimes do not carry any possible prison or jail time. In some states, possession of small amounts of marijuana has been downgraded from a misdemeanor to an infraction.
The criminal justice system attempts to punish each crime according to its severity, rather than meting out the same penalty for every offense. Each state has a slightly different method for categorizing crimes into one of these three types, and anyone interested in the penalties for a specific crime in his or her area should always consult his or her state’s statutes.
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