There are different classifications for crimes in the US, based on their seriousness. This classification influences not only how any criminal case will proceed, but also what likely punishment you can expect if you are found guilty at the end.
There are three different classifications: infractions are the least serious offenses, felonies the most serious with misdemeanors sitting in the middle. If you have been arrested, it can be helpful to understand where the crime you have been accused of sits on this scale. But if you need any further information or advice as to how this classification should affect your response to questions from the police, then it is best to call a criminal defense lawyer and ask them to advise you going forward.
Infractions are the least serious offenses dealt with by our criminal justice system, and are often referred to as petty offenses. In some, infractions are not even considered to be a criminal offense and are instead dealt with through civil courts. Even in the states where infractions are dealt with by the criminal courts, you are very unlikely to be sent to prison for committing an infraction.
A lot of minor traffic violations are considered infractions, such as speeding or failing to use your turn signal, along with non-moving violations including parking in front of a fire hydrant or possessing a vehicle that is unfit to be on the road. Of course, there are some very serious traffic violations that are classified as misdemeanors and even felonies, but most are dealt with through tickets and fines rather than prison sentences.
Most of the time, infractions that are not related to traffic offenses involve individuals who break local laws; offenses that have a damaging effect on the community rather than on an individual victim of crime. These kinds of infractions include littering, jaywalking, walking a dog without a leash and drinking alcohol in public.
Moving into slightly more serious offenses, misdemeanors can often be punished by a jail sentence or perhaps a substantial fine. Misdemeanors themselves are often separated into three different categories: petty misdemeanors are the least serious, gross or high misdemeanors are the most serious, with ordinary misdemeanors in the middle.
Different states take different approaches to prosecuting misdemeanors, with many allowing flexibility for how a case is prosecuted depending on the extenuating circumstances — for instance, if it is the first time the defendant has been in trouble with the law. Some states even allow judges to decide if certain crimes should be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony, again depending on extenuating circumstances. This can have serious implications for the likely punishment, as people found guilty of felonies usually face a significant prison sentence.
These are the most serious crimes, and are usually punished by significant prison sentences. In some states, people found guilty of felony murder charges still face the death sentence. If you are charged with a felony offense, this will affect how the criminal justice system treats you and your case throughout, from your first appearance in court until sentencing. It is likely to prove more difficult to get bail if you have been charged with a felony, or the amount set for bail could be so high as to be unreachable for your family and friends.
Many states have introduced what has become known as a “three strikes” rule with regard
to felonies. This applies to repeat offenders who have been arrested and charged on multiple occasions for felony offenses. This rule applies once you are found guilty of your third felony; a guilty verdict will lead to a much more severe punishment than you could have normally expected had you been found guilty of the same crime for the first time. For instance, those found guilty of dealing drugs on three separate occasions could find themselves facing a life sentence in prison rather than the usual sentence of two or three years behind bars.
The “three strikes” rule is supposed to act as a deterrent; the idea being that even repeat offenders will give up their life of crime if they know they could face life in prison next time they are picked up for even a minor felony. Experts believe that it has not had this effect, however, and has instead merely led to overcrowding and increased problems in the prison system in the US.
If you have been arrested, it is important to establish quickly what kind of offense you are likely to be charged with; getting your own or a court-appointed attorney to advise you is vital, especially if you have been charged with a serious misdemeanor or a felony.