Written by Tony Chiaramonte on 01/15/2021

What's the Difference between a Misdemeanor and a Felony?

Any criminal offense can have a major impact on someone’s life. However, some crimes are much more serious than others. 

Generally, criminal charges are divided into misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors are less serious than felonies. As a result, misdemeanor crimes often carry a less severe punishment, or sentence

However, not all misdemeanors are created equal. Some are still considered very serious crimes. 

Classes of Crimes

There are at least three classes of crimes in the United States. However, each state is responsible for writing its own criminal law. As a result, the judgment, terms, punishments, and even definitions of offenses vary widely from state to state. 

In general, criminal offenses are classified as follows: 


The least serious types of crime are infractions, also referred to as summary offenses

In some states, an infraction or summary offense can lead to jail time, but this is rare. Serving jail time for a summary offense is generally reserved for cases with unusual circumstances.

A summary offense most often results in a fine, points on a driver’s record, or mandatory community service. 

The most common infractions are traffic tickets and violations of municipal codes or administrative regulations. Speeding, letting your dog off the leash, and littering are all common infractions. 

Those cited for a summary offense have limited rights. They have the right to contest the charge. However, there is no federal right to a jury trial for an infraction. 

That said, failing to take care of an infraction can result in a new misdemeanor charge. It’s better to deal with infractions before they turn into something more serious.  


Misdemeanors occupy the middle ground between summary offenses and felonies. 

It’s worth noting that there is no federal definition for what constitutes a misdemeanor. State lawmakers are free to define offenses as they see fit. 

However, the following crimes are commonly graded as misdemeanors:

  • Driving under the influence (DUI) 

  • Driving while intoxicated or impaired (DWI)

  • Simple assault

  • Trespassing

  • Shoplifting

  • Petty theft

  • Drug possession for personal use

  • Disorderly conduct

  • Vandalism

Most states sort misdemeanor offenses using several grades. Some states use the terms first-, second- and third-degree misdemeanors. In these states, a first-degree misdemeanor is the most serious. 

Other states use distinctive terms to describe different types of misdemeanor. These terms include “gross misdemeanor” or “class A misdemeanor.” 

Regardless of the designations used, states create misdemeanor subgroups to limit a sentencing judge’s discretion. 

Misdemeanor sentences

In Pennsylvania, for example, misdemeanor crimes and their punishments are classified as follows:

  • Third-degree misdemeanor — Up to 1 year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500

  • Second-degree misdemeanor — Up to 2 years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000

  • First-degree misdemeanor — Up to 5 years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000

If a misdemeanor results in a jail sentence, the crime will be listed on the defendant’s criminal record. 

The defendant likely will serve the sentence at the county jail. By contrast, most felony sentences are served in state prison. 

Some misdemeanor criminal cases result in extra penalties. For example, people convicted of certain crimes may not be allowed to own a gun. Others may be required to register as sex offenders. 

Certain misdemeanor convictions can result in a jail sentence. Those facing a misdemeanor charge have a federal constitutional right to a jury trial. 

Alternatives to a jury trial

Before a case goes to trial, a defendant might be able to plead guilty to lesser offenses through a plea bargain

Under such plea deals, defendants typically plead guilty to certain charges in exchange for reduced sentences. Plea bargains also allow judges and prosecutors to shorten their time on a case and focus on other cases. 

A criminal defense attorney can explain this process and explore what can be done to fight misdemeanor charges. 


Felonies are the most serious type of criminal offense, often involving violence or serious damage. Under federal law, a felony is any crime punishable by 1 year in prison. 

However, states can create their own definition of what a felony charge is. A  misdemeanor in one state might be considered a felony in another. 

A few examples of common felony crimes include:

  • Arson

  • Kidnapping

  • Aggravated assault

  • Burglary of a home

  • Rape

  • Some drug-selling offenses 

  • Some cases of domestic violence, depending on the level of violence

  • Some gun crimes (often described by the phrase “with a deadly weapon”)

  • Certain levels of theft (often named as “grand theft”)

Felony sentences

Felonies typically carry much longer sentences than lesser crimes. As with misdemeanors, most states further classify felonies using several grades. 

Again, to use Pennsylvania as an example, there are three classes of felony crimes and their punishments:

  • Third-degree felony — Up to 7 years in jail and a fine of up to $15,000 

  • Second-degree felony — Up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to $15,000 

  • First-degree felony — Up to 20 years in jail and a fine of up to $25,000 

Felons who have several serious crimes on their criminal records may face even longer sentences. These can range up to and including life imprisonment. (Note: The death penalty is only permitted for certain murder offenses.)

Effects of a Felony Conviction

In addition to fines and prison sentences, a felony conviction can impose other consequences. For example, in some states, those convicted of a felony cannot vote, and in most states, they cannot own a gun.  

A felony conviction also can hurt a person’s employment prospects. How it does so can vary from state to state. 

Historically, employers have freely inquired about an applicant’s criminal history, then used that information to make a hiring decision. In many states, that is still the case.

However, some states now forbid employers from asking about criminal convictions on job applications and during initial job interviews. 

In these states, an employer can only run a background check after a hiring decision has been made. Even then, the employer must demonstrate that an applicant’s record will prevent them from safely performing the job. 

Another factor worth considering is the effect of collateral consequences. A collateral consequence is a type of legal “disability” imposed due to a criminal conviction.

Collateral consequences are not intended to be part of the “punishment” for a crime. Still, they deny or restrict benefits to convicted felons that are generally available to all Americans. 

The following are possible collateral consequences of a felony conviction:

  • Revoking of a driver’s license 

  • Loss of voting privileges

  • Impact on child custody issues

  • Complications of employment 

  • Barred from owning a firearm

  • Sex offender registration

  • Barred from serving in certain public offices

  • Loss of certain government benefits

The effects of a felony criminal conviction cannot be overstated. 

Anyone charged with a serious crime — felony or misdemeanor — should reach out to a qualified criminal defense law firm for assistance.

A criminal defense lawyer can help defendants rest assured they’re doing all they can to protect their future. 

Most criminal defense lawyers offer clients a free consultation to discuss their case.

Contact Member