Felony crimes are unlawful acts that have been identified as more serious than misdemeanor crimes. They can be punishable by a prison sentence, fines or both. Different types of felony offenses have different punishments, based on their severity and the presence of any aggravating or mitigating factors. Generally, a felony is any offense punishable by at least one year of incarceration.
There are many different ways felonies can be charged. The type of felony charge an individual faces depends on a few factors, such as his previous criminal record and the presence of aggravating or mitigating factors in the case.
Types of Felony Charges
There is not one specific felony definition. Rather, there are many different offenses and circumstances that can be classified as felonies.
The two main types of felony charges are violent and non-violent. Violent felony crimes include murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault (assault with a weapon), rape, sexual assault, arson and robbery, both armed and unarmed.
Non-violent felonies include non-violent property offenses, drug offenses and white-collar crimes. Felony property offenses are things like burglary, larceny, fraud, forgery, certain types of vandalism and receipt of stolen property. White-collar crimes take place in a business or other professional environment where one person intentionally tries to gain financial benefit while causing loss for others. The most common felony charges are drug possession, aggravated assault, arson, burglary, murder and rape.
Consequences for Felony Convictions
The crimes within the two main categories of felony charges also have degrees of severity, which creates different levels of punishment. These categories are typically called 3rd degree felony, 2nd degree felony and 1st degree felony charges. Some states have additional felony classifications, like Illinois' Class X felony definition.
When convicted, the criminal may face a prison sentence, probation, fines, restitution, community service and loss of rights such as the right to vote and to own a weapon. If incarceration is mandated, the sentence is served in a state or federal prison. 3rd degree felony convictions typically do not result in incarceration, whereas 2nd and 1st degree felony convictions often do.
Changes in Felony Charges
The felony charges may be different than those for which the person was arrested, and initial felony charges also can be changed if more evidence is discovered. For example, an individual may initially be arrested for an offense typically charged as a 3rd degree felony, but then have the charge increased to a 2nd degree felony when more evidence is discovered.
Court Considerations in Felony Cases
A prosecutor can bring felony charges on her own after examining the police report and evidence. The accused person then has a right to a preliminary trial, in which the prosecutor must prove before a judge there is enough evidence to convict. In many circumstances, the prosecutor will instead enlist a grand jury to decide the felony charges. The prosecutor presents evidence to this group of randomly selected citizens, who then determine whether or not to issue a felony indictment. This method is generally preferred by prosecutors, because less evidence is needed to bring felony charges.
Felonies and Other Charges
Understanding the felony definition is just one part of understanding the breadth of charges used to define offenses and punish convicted individuals. Other types of charges are petty offenses and misdemeanors.
The least serious crimes are classified as petty offenses. These crimes are not punishable by jail time and include acts such as minor traffic offenses, parking violations, and minor infractions of local laws. Punishment usually is a fine. The next level of offense is a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors include acts such as public intoxication, disorderly conduct, battery, trespassing and theft under an amount specified by the jurisdiction. Misdemeanor laws vary greatly from state to state. Convictions typically result in a steeper fine than a petty offense or a short-term sentence served in a city or county jail.