Five Categories of Crime and the Rank of Seriousness

By Terri Lynn Coop - Updated June 16, 2017
Handcuffed by a policeman

Committing a crime under state or federal law could land you in jail. How long your sentence is and where you serve it depends on the crime of which you are convicted. Laws vary from state to state, but there are generally five different categories of criminal violations with varying punishments, depending on the seriousness of the crime.

Treason and Espionage

Treason and espionage are the two most serious felonies in the United States. These crimes are usually prosecuted under federal law, but most states also have laws against treason on their books. Treason occurs when someone who owes allegiance to the United States, such as a citizen or an alien who is a temporary resident, gives aid, comfort, or assistance to an enemy of the United States during wartime. Espionage is similar. To commit espionage, a person, whether a citizen or not, must transmit information that is important to the U.S. national defense to an enemy. An example of espionage is an engineer who steals plans to a weapon system and gives them to a foreign government. Under federal law, the penalty for treason or espionage ranges from a minimum of five years in federal prison up to the death penalty.

Felonies

A felony, the next most serious type of crime, is a class of crime punishable by a prison term ranging from one year in a state or federal prison to the death penalty. Convicted felons may also forfeit privileges such as being able to possess firearms or holding public office. Felonies are usually violent crimes against people or property and include murder, rape, arson, robbery, aggravated assault and burglary. However, states have passed laws making theft a felony if the dollar amount meets a certain limit. Possession of narcotics is also a felony in most states.

Inchoate Crimes

Inchoate crimes are considered the next level of serious crime because they can be charged and punished either as felonies or misdemeanors. These are crimes that are part of the preparation of a larger crime. Conspiracy, attempt and solicitation are the three most common inchoate crimes. For example, trying to hire a hit man can be punished as solicitation to commit murder or attempted murder. You can be convicted and sent to prison even if the murder wasn't committed. If you are convicted of conspiracy, you will get the same sentence as your co-conspirators, even if you took no part in the actual crime. Attempting to illegally obtain prescription drugs is a misdemeanor inchoate crime. Even if you did not obtain the drugs, you can still be convicted of the attempt.

Misdemeanors

In the five categories of crime, a misdemeanor, literally meaning "bad behavior," is the fourth most serious level. These less serious crimes are punishable by up to one year in a county jail. You do not go to state prison for committing a misdemeanor. These crimes include the destruction of property, writing bad checks and domestic violence. In many states, if you commit the same misdemeanor, such as domestic violence or possession of marijuana, more than once, you can be charged with a felony.

Offenses and Infractions

Offenses and Infractions are the the least serious of the five types of crimes. These minor crimes are usually punished by a fine or suspension of a license or privilege. Traffic tickets are the most common. Citations from towns for weeds, noise, or involving pets are other types of infractions. Status offenses are a subset of this category. For example, possession of alcohol by a minor is a crime only if committed by someone under the age of 21.

About the Author

Terri Lynn Coop is an attorney by day and a writer by night. She began writing professionally in 2006 and her work has appeared in Dream People, Whispers of Wickedness, Flashshots and "The Flash 40 Anthology." She has a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from University of the Pacific and a Juris Doctor from the University of Tulsa.

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