Crimes generally fall into one of three categories: felonies, misdemeanors, or infractions. Felonies are more serious crimes (such as burglary or arson) that typically carry a punishment of a year or more in prison. Infractions are minor offenses (including most traffic violations) and usually can be punished by a fine only—no jail time. Misdemeanors fall in the middle and include crimes like simple assault or a first-time impaired driving offense. Less serious than felonies and more serious than infractions, misdemeanors typically carry a maximum sentence of up to one year in jail.
The maximum sentence for most misdemeanors is one year in jail, although a handful of states allow for slightly longer sentences from 18 months to a few years in jail. And a few states set the maximum sentence at just under a year (to avoid certain immigration consequences).
In a few states, like Pennsylvania, a person could serve a misdemeanor sentence in prison. But in most states, a conviction for a misdemeanor means possible jail time. Jails are typically short-term lockups run by a local government, while prisons house inmates for longer sentences and are often run by the state.
Some states have crimes—called “wobblers”—that can be either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances around the crime and the criminal history of the defendant. Usually, the prosecutor decides how to charge the crime, but the final say will come down to the judge at sentencing. Examples of wobblers include domestic violence or fraud crimes, though hundreds of crimes can be charged either way. If the sentence results in jail time or a lesser punishment, it’s a misdemeanor. If the judge gives a state prison sentence, the crime is a felony.
Many people with misdemeanor convictions avoid incarceration altogether. Judges have several options for misdemeanor sentencing besides sending someone to jail, including probation, payment of a fine, community service, and restitution. (Restitution is paid to a victim to compensate for losses from the crime.)
Some unlucky folks might receive a combination of all of these measures. For instance, let’s consider Melanie, who went on a bender and crashed her car into a mailbox. After conviction for her DUI (driving under the influence), the judge sentences her to three days in jail, 20 hours of community service, and probation, which includes alcohol counseling. Additionally, she has to pay a fine of $800 to the court and restitution to the homeowners whose mailbox she obliterated.
With some misdemeanors (usually nonviolent ones), defendants might be eligible for pretrial diversion. In a typical diversion program, the defendant pleads guilty, and the court suspends sentencing and offers a program for the defendant to complete. If the defendant successfully completes all the conditions, the court will dismiss the charge and expunge the arrest. Diversion is usually only available for first-time offenders.
Sometimes for minor misdemeanors, police officers will issue a citation or ticket instead of arresting the person. The citation typically requires the defendant to either pay a fine or promise to appear in court. The police will only issue citations in less serious situations, where the person does not have an outstanding warrant, is not intoxicated, and is not dangerous.
Though the laws vary from state to state, all states have some form of criminal expungement which can remove or limit access to an arrest, charges, or conviction on your criminal record. Which crimes are eligible and how the process works vary widely, but it’s worth looking into because expunging a conviction or arrest from your record can help with employment, professional licensing, housing, and educational opportunities.
If you’ve been charged with a misdemeanor, it’s important to speak with a lawyer as soon as you can. A lawyer in your area can help you navigate the criminal process and minimize the risks and consequences of a misdemeanor conviction. Don’t assume a misdemeanor charge isn’t serious. Any amount of time in jail could possibly get you fired from a job. Fines, fees, and restitution add up quickly. And a criminal record can follow you for years.