Misdemeanors vs. Felonies

Published: 07th June 2006
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Misdemeanors vs. Felonies



Most states break their crimes into two major groups, felonies and misdemeanors. The difference between the two types of crime is the punishment involved. Where a crime can be punished with a year of more of imprisonment in state prison, it is a felony. But if the potential punishment is for a year or less in the county jail, then the crime is considered a misdemeanor. There are certain crimes, called "wobblers," which may be considered either a misdemeanor or a felony, because under some conditions the punishment may be imprisonment for less than a year, and in other situations, the criminal may go to prison for a year or more. It is up to the judge in the case, usually recommended by the prosecuting attorney, on whether to charge a wobbler as a felony or a misdemeanor. Other types of crimes, called infractions, may be punished by fines, but may still be considered a misdemeanor, such as possession of less than an ounce of marijuana for personal use.

Felonies

Felonies are crimes punishable by imprisonment in the state prison or by death. Fines can also be imposed for felony offenses. The court can impose both fines and imprisonment as part of a felony sentence. Common examples of felonies include: murder, robbery, and rape, drug offenses, and other serious crimes.



Felonies are much more serious offenses (e.g. robbery, grand theft, drug possession and/or sales of drugs, etc.) and can be punishable with significantly higher fines and imprisonment in the state prison for a period of years and capital offenses (e.g. murder) can even be punishable with death. Many sentencing issues, such as restitution to the victim of a crime, alcohol and drug programs and sex or drug offender lifetime registration with the local police agency can apply to both felonies and misdemeanors.

California punishes felonies with determinate sentencing. The California Legislature has stated the primary goal of the felony Determinate Sentencing Law is to punish the offender. Determinate sentencing provides three possible terms of imprisonment: a low, middle, and high term to be served in the state prison. Often it is assumed that the middle term is the appropriate sentence unless the court makes findings on the record that justify the higher or lower term. Making a finding on the record means that it is stated in open court. Where a crime is classified as a felony, but the statute does not provide a specific sentencing range, then the crime can be punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months, 2 years or 3 years plus any enhancements, such as personal use of a firearm.

However, unless the felony is specifically precluded by statute, a judge can sentence a convicted felon to a term of probation instead of a term of imprisonment. Among other things, the court may require the defendant, as a term and condition of probation, to serve local jail time, pay fines, complete community service and pay restitution.

If the defendant is a minor at the time of sentencing, they are not usually sent to state prison. Instead minors are sent to the California Youth Authority. The California Youth Authority is governed by the Department of Corrections. This is where minors will serve out their term of imprisonment. However, they may be transferred to a state prison once they reach a certain age, if their sentence still has time left on it.

Misdemeanors

Misdemeanors are crimes punishable by a maximum period of confinement, ordinarily in the county jail, of one year or less. Fines can also be imposed for misdemeanors. Unless otherwise specified by law, misdemeanors in California are punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by a fine not exceeding one $1,000, or by both. Many California statutes define misdemeanors with greater fines, or with maximum terms of imprisonment of one year. Common examples of misdemeanors include: driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, prostitution, vandalism, possession of loaded or concealed weapons, and petty theft.

Some misdemeanor can be settled via a "civil compromise," pursuant to California Penal Code Sections 1377 and 1378. These sections permit a defendant to have a criminal proceeding permanently stayed or dismissed provided the victim of the crime appears before the judge, either in person or by declaration, acknowledging that they have received satisfaction for their injury. However, the court must agree to the compromise.

Other offenses, usually involving drugs, may be eligible for "deferred entry of judgment" or "diversion." These provisions permit someone, who has pled guilty or no contest to a drug charge, to complete a drug awareness program and have the underlying criminal case dismissed after 18 months. However, if the defendant fails to successfully complete the program, the court can impose a jail sentence.

Where someone is convicted of a misdemeanor the court can either grant or deny probation. If probation is granted, it generally lasts for up to 3 years. However, offenses such as DUI, child endangerment, domestic violence and being under the influence of drugs permit probation to last up to 5 years. The court, in its discretion, could even order an alternative sentencing option. Alternative sentencing would allow any custody time served in a home detention, such as house arrest or an electronic-monitoring program, be counted against the ordered incarceration time. Where the court imposes a fine, the court will often be flexible in providing for an alternative sentence in lieu of a fine, consisting of community service hours.

Infractions



Infractions are the types of crimes which are not punished by a term of imprisonment. Rather the types of punishments include fines and community service. The most common types of infractions are traffic offenses, like running a stop sign. Another major difference is that a person is not entitled to a trial with a jury for an infraction and is also not entitled to the appointment at public expense of a lawyer to fight the case, unless the person has been arrested and is currently being held in custody.ns is crimes that are not punishable by imprisonment. The punishment for infractions is usually a fine or community service in lieu of a fine. A as


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