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What Are Felony Classes?

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All states divide crimes into misdemeanors and felonies, with felonies representing the most serious offenses that are punishable by longer sentences and potentially significant fines. However, states also create separate classes for felonies as well. Some states use numbered classes, others rely on the alphabet. No matter which system is used, the lower the number or letter in the alphabet indicates a class with more serious felonies. Kentucky, for example, has four felony classes – A through D. Some of the most serious crimes in the state, including the rape of a child, fall into Class A. Class D felonies are less serious, including crimes such as marijuana distribution.

All felony classes are not the same. It’s virtually impossible to compare felony classes from state to state because of differences in the felony classification system across the country. For example, a Class 3 felony is a fairly serious crime in most states, but it is more serious in Colorado and Arizona – with six felony classes – than in Illinois – which has only classes 1-4. Even in states with the same number of felony classes, similar crimes do not necessarily have identical penalties. In Virginia, burglary with a deadly weapon is a Class 2 crime punishable by up to life in prison. In North Dakota, armed or violent burglaries are Class B felonies punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Felonies vs. misdemeanors. The strict definition of a felony is a crime that is punishable by more than a year in prison. A misdemeanor, on the other hand, is punishable by up to a year in jail. In some cases, it may be possible for a criminal defense attorney to convince prosecutors to have a felony reduced to a misdemeanor. This generally is only possible when a crime of violence is not involved and when the felony crime is not among the most serious in the state. In addition to less time in jail, it is easier to have a misdemeanor conviction expunged from a person’s criminal record. One more significant difference between felonies and misdemeanors has to do with the facilities in which criminal sentences are served. Misdemeanor sentences are commonly served in local or county facilities that often include other defendants awaiting trial. Felony sentences are often served in state facilities that can be much further away and include defendants convicted of very serious crimes.

Enhancing felony sentences. All states have laws that give courts the discretion to enhance sentences for felonies if the crimes involved specific aggravating factors. Having prior convictions, carrying or using a gun while committing a crime and committing a particularly heinous offense are all examples of aggravating factors that will enhance felony sentences in most states. An experienced criminal defense attorney can argue against enhanced penalties and can also point out mitigating factors to prosecutors – such as acting in self-defense or being helpful with law enforcement authorities – in order to offset any aggravating factors and keep a felony sentence as low as possible.

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