Felonies are the most serious class of criminal offense. They are generally defined as crimes punishable by imprisonment of more than one year, and the prison sentences are usually served in a federal or state penitentiary rather than a county jail. Some examples of felonies include murder, rape, burglary, kidnapping and arson.
People who have been convicted of a felony are called felons. Repeat felons are punished extra harshly because sentencing laws take into consideration their criminal history.
Difference between Felonies and Other Types of Crimes
The two other main categories of crimes besides felonies are misdemeanors and infractions. Misdemeanors are usually defined as crimes that carry a maximum sentence of less than one year. Typical examples are shoplifting, trespass and simple assault. In many cases, people who are convicted of misdemeanors do not serve jail time but rather are ordered to pay a monetary fine or perform court-ordered community service.
The lowest-level criminal offenses are known as infractions. They normally carry no potential jail time whatsoever, or at most a few days. Some examples include littering and most traffic violations.
States are not uniform in how they categorize their crimes.
Three Strikes Laws
People who repeatedly commit felonies, known as habitual felons, may be subject to enhanced punishments under sentencing guidelines and so-called "three strikes" laws. Using a baseball analogy, the federal government and many states impose substantially harsher penalties on a person who has two prior serious criminal offenses and is now convicted of a third. Essentially, the idea is that if you've demonstrated a history of committing felonies, especially violent ones, you should have an extremely long sentence, and usually life imprisonment. These laws are designed to protect the community from habitual criminals by removing them from the street for good.
Opponents of three-strikes laws sometimes contend that they are unconstitutional. Some critics also charge that it's unfair to punish felons with extra-long sentences for being habitual offenders, when some of the blame for their recidivism (return to a life of crime) lies with the government's failure to create effective rehabilitation programs inside prisons to teach inmates job and other skills.
Immigration Consequences of Felonies
For defendants who aren't U.S. citizens, the commission of a felony can also have unexpected immigration consequences. In particular, the government may decide to initiate deportation proceedings and return the individual to his or her country of origin. Even people who are lawful permanent residents (Green Card holders) can be deported, if they have committed serious enough crimes. Often, the individual will be required to serve out the prison sentence first and then, upon release, will be deported.
The possibility of deportation raises the stakes for a noncitizen who pleads guilty or no-contest to a criminal offense. A defendant who is not a U.S. citizen should take into consideration possible impacts on immigration status before accepting a plea bargain offer.
Charged with a Felony? Talk to an Attorney
If you've been accused of a felony, you'll need a shrewd, sharp criminal defense lawyer who knows how to protect your legal rights, persuasively argue your case, and work the system to your advantage. It's in your best interests to consult with a qualified criminal defense attorney in your town.