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The Difference Between Misdemeanors and Felonies

Felonies and misdemeanors are two classifications of crimes used in most states, with petty offenses being the third. Petty offenses are sometimes called violations and are usually punished by a fine with no jail time. They are often handled by magistrates in municipal courts and the entire process rarely takes longer than a day. A defendant is notified that he's being charged with a petty offense by issuance of a ticket, which specifies the court date and the fine that will be judged. Jury trials are not available for petty offenses.

Misdemeanors are punishable by more substantial fines and sometimes jail time, usually less than one year. Any jail term would most likely be served in a local or county jail, rather than a state or federal correctional institution. Like the petty offense, misdemeanors are usually adjudicated in a shortened trial, where defendants do not have the right to court-appointed lawyers if they can't afford one. Jury trials can be available, depending upon the type of misdemeanor alleged.

Felonies are the most serious type of crime and are often classified by degrees, with a first degree felony being the most serious. Many states require that a prosecutor obtain an indictment from a grand jury before charging someone with a felony. Felonies are punishable by substantial fines and prison sentences in excess of one year. If you are convicted of felony, you will most likely serve your jail time in a state or federal correctional institution. The court must provide an accused person with an attorney if he or she cannot afford one. A jury trial is also available for a felony prosecution. Other constitutional rights such as the right to a speedy trial are also involved when a person is charged with a felony.

Conviction of a felony brings with it more disadvantages than just higher fines and longer jail time. In some states, persons convicted of felonies cannot serve on juries, or purchase or possess firearms and may not be employed in certain professions, such as law, teaching, or the military.