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Different jurisdictions and localities usually have their own ways of classifying felonies, but in general the classes follow a numeric or alphabetical system. In most places the most serious offenses are deemed “Class 1” or “Class A,” then proceed in descending order of importance. Like most things in the law, however, it’s difficult to deal in absolutes. Some crimes that might technically be classed as mid-level Class 3 felonies might be tried as a Class 1 or 2 if the perpetrator acted particularly aggressively or did something like use a lethal weapon. These are called “aggravating factors,” and can influence the specific class assigned to any given felony. Reading the statutes and legal codes of a particular jurisdiction can provide a rough layout of the felony prosecution terrain, but in actual practice it’s almost entirely fact-dependent. Statutes and codes typically serve more as guidelines than as hard-and-fast rules.
The word “felony” is usually reserved for the most serious of crimes. Even still, not all felonies are equal, either in terms of seriousness or in degree of punishment required. There are several felony classes and they often vary according to location. In the United States, for instance, every state has its own criminal classes as defined by the individual state legislatures. Most are fairly consistent, but not always; as a consequence, some crimes are more or less serious in one state than in another.
Classification systems are usually ordered based on the perceived seriousness of the crime, as well as the intent of the perpetrators. A crime that was thought about and planned for a long time is often treated as more serious than one that was decided on more or less spontaneously, even if the actual wrong committed was the same in each case. Grouping felonies into classes gives law enforcement and court officials some guidelines to follow when it comes to punishments, and typically influences things like maximum sentence time, the imposition of fines, and, depending on jurisdiction, whether prosecutors are permitted to seek the death penalty.
The most serious felonies are usually assigned to Class A or Class 1. These generally include crimes like murder and acts of terrorism. Extortion, embezzlement, and major thefts of things like cars and artwork can also be considered in this class if they involve a certain, usually very substantial, sum of money. This first class of felonies is usually the most serious, and people charged with these crimes often face long prison sentences and astronomical fines.
Crimes don’t have to be gruesome or mastermind plots to be tried as felonies, and this is part of the reasoning behind designating classes. Things like rape, negligent homicide, robbery, arson, and kidnapping, all of which are usually considered to be quite serious, often fall within the more mid-range classes. The maximum sentences for these sorts of crimes is usually a lot less those with a higher classification rating.
The lowest felony classes typically cover things like larceny, small-scale theft, and battery. These are crimes that lawmakers have typically decided deserve time in prison, but don’t approach the level of seriousness of most of the crimes above them. A lot of this depends on jurisdiction. Some places have several different designations within this lowest rung. A Class E felony, for instance, might involve burglary and robbery, and one example of a class F felony is sexual exploitation. Stalking and harassment might also be included.
It’s important to realize that classification systems aren’t fixed, and there isn’t usually a “one size fits all” approach to criminal prosecutions. Just because a crime looks like it should fit into a certain category doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be tried that way. Part of this has to do with what’s known as “aggravating factors.” These are things about a crime or the way it was committed that can bump it out of one class and into another. Kidnapping, for instance, might technically be a Class B felony. However, someone who kidnaps a child with a lethal weapon might find himself tried with Class A specifications. Similarly, someone who shot a person and injured him but was intending to take his life might be tried with attempted murder, a higher class than simple assault. Lawyers involved in criminal trials often spend a lot of time setting out the specific facts of each case before agreeing on the appropriate classification.
It depends on the state as to which felonies are listed in which class. What may be a class B felony in one state might be a Class A in another state. Most states have their criminal codes listed online, so that might be worth a look.
The important distinction is that felonies go with a person much longer than misdemeanors. A felony conviction can deprive a person of the right to vote and can keep him or her from getting a variety of jobs. It's no small thing to be a convicted felon and people need to remember that.
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