Classifications of Crimes

Because the negative behavior regulated by the criminal laws varies from relatively minor to devastatingly violent, crimes are classified into levels or degrees. The classification of a crime reflects its seriousness. If you face questioning or arrest or are accused of a crime, you should consult an experienced attorney as early in the process as possible for help protecting your legal and constitutional rights. A criminal-defense lawyer can explain the particular crime involved and its possible ramifications. For an Overview to Criminal Defense.Click here.


The most serious crimes are felonies, which are typically either particularly heinous, involve dangerous weapons or threaten relatively high amounts of financial damage or harm to property. Traditionally, felonies are punishable by either confinement for a year or longer, usually in a penitentiary or similarly secure facility, or by the death penalty.

  • Examples are murder, treason, rape, arson, burglary or kidnapping.
  • For federal felonies, defendants have the right to be charged only by a grand jury. This right varies for state felonies.
  • Because of the seriousness of the offense and the punishment, maximum safeguards for the defendant’s rights are built into the prosecution and court procedures.
  • Indigent defendants who cannot afford to hire lawyers and are facing felony charges have the right to free state-appointed criminal-defense attorneys.
  • In addition to social stigma, long-term consequences may include the loss of the right to vote; ineligibility for elected office or professional licenses; restrictions on the right to possess weapons; ineligibility for housing, public benefits, educational benefits or certain jobs; immigration problems; loss of the right to serve as a juror; negative impact on parental rights or divorce proceedings; or the requirement to register with certain criminal registries.
  • Persons accused of felonies have the right to jury trials.


Misdemeanors are crimes that are usually less violent or involve lower levels of harm than felonies do. The legal procedure is usually simpler than for felonies, the penalties less severe and the long-term consequences less harsh.

  • Penalties typically include fines, property forfeitures or jail time of less than one year in a facility less secure than a penitentiary.
  • There is no federal right to a grand jury for a misdemeanor and state grand jury rights for those accused of misdemeanors vary.
  • Court procedures may be more relaxed than those for felonies.
  • Indigent defendants are generally only eligible for free state-appointed legal counsel when the misdemeanor charges require imprisonment upon conviction.
  • Long-term consequences are normally less severe than those of felonies, although some of the felony consequences listed above may still apply to misdemeanors, depending on the jurisdiction. However, those convicted of misdemeanors generally retain the right to vote.
  • Generally, if the potential punishment is imprisonment for less than six months, there is no right to a jury trial.

Minor Charges

The least severe infractions are minor traffic offenses and the like. The terminology varies by state, but common terms for these offenses include petty offenses, infractions orviolations of local law. Often the only penalty is a fine and sometimes the infraction may not even be considered a crime.

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It is important to keep in mind that crime classifications vary by jurisdiction and that this article provides only general information. To understand the details of a criminal charge in your jurisdiction, an attorney can explain the potential punishment and ramifications.

DISCLAIMER: This site and any information contained herein are intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Seek competent legal counsel for advice on any legal matter.

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