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What is the Difference Between a Felony and a Misdemeanor?

What Is A Misdemeanor?

A cop arresting a manWhats a misdemeanor? A misdemeanor is a criminal offense that is far less serious than a felony. The majority of people convicted of a misdemeanor see a judge and are generally punished with just a fine. If incarceration is recommended, the time is typically spent in a county or city jail; however, some misdemeanors in South Carolina can carry as much as ten years in prison.

It is important to note that while a misdemeanor is less serious than a felony, a citation is an ever lesser type of crime. A citation occurs when one does something wrong such as jaywalking, wrong parking etc., and is issued a ticket and that’s that. In most cases, the offender will just pay a fine. There is no need to appear in court or any chance of jail time. However, if the citation remains unpaid or unresolved, there may be a risk of greater penalties.

What is the Misdemeanor Jail Time?

Most States classify misdemeanors into three categories: petty misdemeanors, ordinary misdemeanors, and gross misdemeanors. Petty misdemeanors are the least serious and often involve no jail time or a jail sentence of less than six months and a fine of usually less than $500. The punishment for a gross misdemeanor is less than that prescribed for felonies.

First Time Misdemeanor Offense Sentencing

Sometimes the judge will look at the past criminal history of the offender and first-time crime. First time misdemeanor offenses may also recommend community service, probation or restitution. Depending on your state and jurisdiction, typical examples of a misdemeanor include prostitution, simple assault, public intoxication, shoplifting, disorderly conduct, reckless driving, public trespass, vandalism, and possession of marijuana.

What Is A Felony?

In general, a felony is a much more serious crime than a misdemeanor and is usually associated with a harsher

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penalty.  Felonies are serious crimes that may involve crime against a person or an inanimate object like property. Because of the increase in crime, many states have now started to elevate repeat misdemeanor offenses to felony status. For example, a first time offender for a domestic crime may be charged with a misdemeanor but if the offense is repeated, it is usually elevated to a felony.

Examples of a felony include murder, fraud, rape, armed robbery, tax evasion, burglary, theft, kidnapping, perjury, cheque fraud and arson. In many states, possession of marijuana is now considered a misdemeanor. When convicted of a felony, the US Government and most states have a bare minimum sentencing which is 12 months in prison with or without a monetary penalty. On the other hand, for misdemeanors, there is usually a fine and no incarceration. Even if jail time is ordered, it is almost never more than 12 months.

Some states like California, Texas, Washington, and many others also have enacted the three-strike law. This means that a convicted felon who has previously been convicted of two or more crimes (even drug possession with intent to sell) usually is sent to prison for life. The three strikes law does not apply to misdemeanors.

Similarities between Felony and Misdemeanor

The only area where misdemeanors and felonies are similar is in the classification. Most states classify felonies and misdemeanors by the severity of the crime and harm done. This classification determines the punishment severity at sentencing. That is mainly where the similarity between these two types of crime ends.


a cop writing a ticketOver the years the judicial system has given judges great flexibility in charging and sentencing individuals convicted of misdemeanors and felonies. Because incarceration is not seen as productive to the state or to the individual, many states consider lighter punishment for crimes that are not violent in both categories.

Federal Treatment of Misdemeanors and Felonies

While many states have great flexibility in sentencing when dealing with misdemeanors and felonies, this type of flexibility usually doesn’t apply when the crime is against the federal government. Federal law for both felonies and federal misdemeanors follows is quite serious with very strict sentencing guidelines and very little leniency. Probation and community service are less likely when one is convicted for a federal misdemeanor or a felony. Almost always, the offender spends some time incarcerated and pays a monetary fine.

Consequences of Misdemeanors and Felonies

It is important to understand that conviction for a felony or misdemeanor goes on record. When you apply for a job, a background check will immediately highlight your conviction. How long does a petty misdemeanor stay on your record? In some states, the record is expunged after a few years for a misdemeanor as long as the offender has not committed any other crime during that time period. The same is not true for a felony. It is almost impossible to erase a felony conviction from one’s record.

a judge handing out a sentence Both a misdemeanor and a felony conviction can affect the rest of your life in many ways. With a misdemeanor, if you have many traffic tickets, it may lead to suspension of your driving license or high car insurance rates. You can even have a hard time finding a job. With a felony conviction, the repercussions are more serious. You will definitely not be able to vote, take public office, possess firearms or be part of the jury. You will never be eligible for any government grants and if you are a professional, then getting licensed with your board may be very difficult, if not impossible.

How to Clear Your Record

Most people never consider their future when they commit a crime. Once they have been convicted then reality sets in. It is very difficult to erase public records if you have been charged with a misdemeanor or a felony. However, each case is different and before assuming anything, it is in your interest to consult a criminal defense lawyer at Jeffcoat Criminal Defense Lawyers to find out the status of your situation and your options. It is also a good idea to stay away from criminal activity, no matter how minor an offense it may be, to get one’s life back on track and to build a better future.


Michael Jeffcoat-Jeffcoat Firm founder and attorney



Michael R. Jeffcoat is a criminal defense attorney in South Carolina with over 2 decades of experience, our aggressive criminal defense legal team can help you with misdemeanor and felony offenses. Mr. Jeffcoat strives to keep all his clients informed at all stages of their case.

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