An Explanation of Misdemeanor and Felony Crimes and Punishments

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Misdemeanors and felonies are two different types of criminal acts. Below is an explanation of each type of crime.

Misdemeanor Crimes

A misdemeanor is generally considered to be a “lesser” or minor criminal act. Misdemeanors are generally punished much less severely than felonies. Many misdemeanors are punished with monetary fines and do not involve a prison sentence or jail time to be served.

In the United States, the federal government generally considers a crime punishable with incarceration for one year or less to be a misdemeanor. All other crimes are considered to be felonies. Many states also follow this same view of this type of crime. In some jurisdictions, those who are convicted of a misdemeanor are known as misdemeanants (those convicted of a felony who are known as felons), although the term misdemeanants is rarely used. Depending on the jurisdiction, examples of misdemeanors may include:

  • Petty theft, stealing items of low value
  • Prostitution or selling sexual favors
  • Public intoxication or drunkenness
  • Simple assault
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Trespassing
  • Vandalism
  • Drug possession
  • Driving under the influence (DUI)
  • other similar crimes

Punishment for committing a misdemeanor crime

In the United States, misdemeanors are crimes with a maximum punishment of 12 months of incarceration. Incarceration typically takes place in a local jail, rather than a state or federal prison facility. In contrast, felons (those who are convicted of committing a felony crime) are usually incarcerated in a state or federal prison. Most often, those convicted of misdemeanors are punished with probation, community service or part-time imprisonment, served on the weekends, pay a monetary fine, or some combination of each.


In the United States (and previously other common law countries) a felony is defined as a serious crime. Felonies are generally considered to be the most serious type of crime. The term felony originates from English common law where felonies were originally crimes which involved the confiscation of a convicted person’s land and goods.

Examples of Felony Crimes

Following are examples of some of the more common types of felonies:

  • Homicide, murder
  • Kidnapping
  • Burglary
  • Grand theft
  • Grand larceny
  • Drug abuse violations
  • Automobile theft
  • Arson
  • Assault
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Domestic violence
  • Child abuse
  • Forgery
  • Counterfeiting

In the United States, where the felony / misdemeanor distinction is still widely applied, the Federal government defines a felony as a crime which involves a potential punishment of one year or longer in prison.

View other legal and law definitions in our Investigation Glossary.


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