What is the Difference Between a Felony and a Misdemeanor?

In criminal law, most crimes are divided into one of two categories: felonies and misdemeanors. There are some major differences between the two types of crimes, both in terms of time served and the impact they could have on a convict’s life. So what is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor, and why does it matter?

Defining Misdemeanors and Felonies

Put simply, a misdemeanor refers to any criminal offense with a maximum jail sentence of no more than one year. These tend to be criminal offenses that are considered less severe, such as petty larceny, trespassing, public intoxication, or vandalism. In New York, misdemeanors are further divided into Class A and Class B misdemeanors:

  • Class A misdemeanors have a maximum jail sentence of one year, or alternatively a maximum of three years of probation. They may also be fined up to $1000.
  • Class B misdemeanors have a maximum jail sentence of three months, or alternatively a maximum of one year of probation. They may also be fined up to $500.

By comparison, a felony is any criminal offense with a maximum prison sentence of more than one year. These tend to be more severe crimes, such as aggravated assault, grand larceny, sexual assault, and murder. In New York, felonies are divided between five categories depending on their severity, ranked in severity from E for the least severe to A for most severe. They are also divided between violent and non-violent felonies, with violent felonies getting more severe punishments.

There are also certain offenses that can be either a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the severity of the charges against them. For example, third degree assault is a misdemeanor, while second and first degree assaults are considered felonies. Additionally, some crimes increase in severity for people who are repeat offenders, such as with people who are repeatedly convicted of driving while intoxicated (DWI).

Differences Before Conviction

One of the most important distinctions between misdemeanors and felonies in New York law is that most people accused of a misdemeanor are not assigned bail before trial. The same is also true for most people accused of non-violent felonies. This means they can keep their jobs and go about their daily lives while fighting their criminal case. This gives them a much better chance to exercise their rights and fight the charges against them.

Anyone accused of a felony, particularly a violent felony, is not necessarily so lucky. While many non-violent defendants can be released without bail, some may be assigned bail that they will need to pay to remain out of jail. And some accused of felonies may be remanded without bail, meaning they are kept in jail before trial without an opportunity to bail themselves out.

Differences After Conviction

Anyone convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony will see significant changes in their lives, even once they have served their time. For example, many employers require disclosure of your previous criminal history before they will hire you. Although they are not supposed to discriminate based on your criminal history, many do so anyway, and they can fire you if you lie about your criminal record on a job application.

Convicted felons have it even harder, however. Many professional certifications are unavailable to convicted felons, and it can become substantially harder to get access to loans, grants, or other forms of financing needed to get an education or start a business. It may also affect your access to certain public benefits, such as housing or nutrition assistance. If you are a legal immigrant, your immigration status could also be endangered depending on what you were convicted of. These consequences, and more, are why you should seek out the guidance of an experienced criminal law attorney.

If you or someone you know has been arrested for a criminal offense, you will need legal counsel to help you preserve your rights and work to get the best possible outcome for your matter. A New York criminal defense lawyer, who is experienced in handling criminal cases of all sorts, can advise you of your legal rights and will fight for your best interests in court. If you or your loved one has been arrested, contact the Suffolk County criminal defense attorneys at McGuire, Peláez and Bennett at (631) 348-1702.

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