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There are two broad categories of legal offenses: misdemeanors and felonies. Generally, misdemeanors are less severe crimes than felonies, though it is not the severity of the crime, but, instead, the potential sentence, which determines whether a crime is classified as a felony or a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors are actually a broad category of crimes that carry a maximum sentence of twelve months (one year). In addition, those who commit misdemeanor offenses are generally incarcerated in state or local jail facilities rather than in prisons. In contrast, felonies carry a maximum sentence of greater than one year, and, with the exception of a narrow category of offenses known as state jail felonies, result in incarceration in prison facilities.


Crime designations vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. State-level laws determine whether a particular crime will be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, and federal laws concerning the same crimes can carry different designations. However, crimes that are generally charged as misdemeanors include: traffic violations other than DUIs/DWIs; theft of money or property less than $500; simple assault; indecent exposure with adult victims; vandalism; and trespassing.


Many crimes are punishable as both misdemeanors and felonies, depending on the severity of the crime. For example, the crime of assault ranges from simple misdemeanor assaults up to aggravated felony assault, depending on factors such as whether a weapon was used in the commission of the crime, whether there were any injuries, the severity of any injuries, and the relationship between the parties. In addition, a person may be charged with a felony-level crime and the facts might support those charges, but the person may be able to have the charges reduced as part of a successful plea bargain, or may be convicted only of a lesser-included offense at trial. Therefore, knowing that a person has been charged with or convicted of only a misdemeanor level offense is usually not enough information to determine what the person did.

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