Judicial systems often divide criminal infractions into categories according to the severity of the injustice that is committed. Many judicial systems have a large category of crimes known as misdemeanors. This category is commonly divided into misdemeanor classes, such as A, B, and C, which are also based on the seriousness of the infractions. The manner in which the misdemeanor classes are defined and divided can vary.
There are two common ways of dividing misdemeanor classes. In some places, each class is assigned a letter. In other places, the classes are assigned a single digit number. Generally, the class furthest from the beginning of the sequence is the least severe. For example, in the state of Virginia, a class 4 misdemeanor is the least severe and a class 1 misdemeanor is the most severe. Likewise, in the state of Wisconsin, a class C misdemeanor is the least serious and the class A misdemeanor is the most serious.
A primary function of misdemeanor classes is to provide guidelines for the associated punishments. Generally, a misdemeanor classification system includes maximum consequences. This does not mean that the exact outcome of a conviction is defined. It means that authorities that operate within a given legal system are limited in the severity of the punishments they choose.
In some places, for example, judges lack the power to incarcerate a person for infractions in the least severe misdemeanor classes. In other places, judges may be allowed to incarcerate people whose crimes are in the least severe classes only if they have multiple offenses. Furthermore, when a misdemeanor allows for incarceration, there is usually a maximum sentence that a judge can order. The maximum allowable sentence usually increases for more severe infractions. When a person is a repeat offender, it may also be permissible for a judge to impose a sentence that is more severe than one that would be issued to a first-time offender.
This system also generally applies to the amount of fines that offenders can be ordered to pay. For example, in Wisconsin, a class C misdemeanor has a maximum fine that is much lower than the maximum fine that can be ordered for a class A misdemeanor. Probation is another punishment that is commonly given out in the misdemeanor classes. Infractions in some classes may require mandatory periods of incarceration, thereby barring judges from convicting individuals without imposing a sentence.
In some instances, a misdemeanor class will prevent a judge from imposing fines and incarceration upon the violator. Other judicial systems, like that in Arizona, allow a judge to fine a violator and to order imprisonment. The classification system, however, imposes maximums for each type of punishment within each class.