Crimes usually fall into one of two categories: misdemeanors or felonies. Misdemeanors are less serious crimes that generally carry a maximum of up to one year in jail. Felonies involve more serious crimes that typically carry sentences of more than one year's imprisonment up to life in prison.
Examples of felonies include murder, sexual assault, and kidnapping, but felonies don't always involve violent crimes. For instance, forgery, theft, and fraud can result in felony penalties, if the amount of money involved is large enough.
Sentences for felonies can range anywhere from one year to life in prison and, in some states and in the federal system, a sentence can include the death penalty (also called capital punishment). Generally speaking, the more serious the crime is, the longer the sentence can be. But other factors, such as a person's prior criminal history, can affect the length of sentence.
Felons usually serve out their sentence in state or federal prison, while misdemeanants serve their sentences in a local jail. But a judge can order a felon to serve a shorter sentence in jail, usually as part of probation. (More on probation below.) The opposite, however, isn't true—a judge cannot order a person convicted of a misdemeanor to serve a sentence in prison.
Just because a statute classifies a crime as a felony and it carries the possibility of a prison sentence doesn't mean that every convicted felon will go to prison. For less serious or first-time felonies, the judge can usually sentence a person to either jail time or probation, instead of prison. If the crime involves serious physical harm, like murder or aggravated assault, a convicted felon will likely face a lengthy prison sentence.
As an alternative to a prison sentence, a judge might sentence someone to felony probation. Probation includes conditions that the convicted person must successfully complete to avoid being sent to prison. Common conditions of probation include:
Let's say Melissa shoplifts a bracelet from a jewelry store. The value of the bracelet was $800, which makes stealing it a felony in her state. (The penalty for theft generally depends on the value of the stolen item(s) and varies from state to state.) However, because Melissa has no prior offenses on her record, the judge decides to sentence her to probation rather than incarcerating her. But the threat of incarceration remains. Her probation requires her to obey all laws, report to a probation officer, perform 50 hours of community service, pay restitution (of the amount stolen) to the jewelry store, and stay away from the jewelry store. As long as she fulfills these obligations, she can avoid incarceration.
Parole and supervised release differ from probation. A judge imposes probation as an alternative to prison, whereas parole and supervised release occur near the end of a person's sentence and involve systems of early release.
Parole. In states that use parole, parole boards (not judges) decide if a felon should be released on parole, and the board takes into consideration the felon's behavior while incarcerated. Persons on parole (called parolees) must remain law-abiding (no new crimes) and meet certain conditions in order to maintain their freedom. Parole conditions vary but often include staying away from victims, maintaining employment and a residence, and avoiding alcohol and drugs.
Supervised release. Other states and the federal system use a system of supervised release instead of parole. Supervised release differs from parole in that judges set the supervised release period at the time of sentencing. For instance, a judge might sentence a person to 15 years—12 years of incarceration and three years of supervised release. The actual amount of time spent on supervised release can be less if the inmate commits a crime or any disciplinary violations in prison. Like parole, supervised release comes with conditions.
Violations of conditions. Violating a condition of parole or supervised release can land a person back in prison to serve out the remainder of the sentence.
In addition to the potential loss of liberty, a felony conviction can be very expensive. Convictions of many crimes require payment of fines—money that goes to state and local governments. A judge usually orders a felon to also pay restitution, which is money paid to the victim of a crime or to a state restitution fund to help crime victims pay for losses or expenses related to the crime.
If a person is placed on probation, the offender usually pays the related supervision costs, such as fees for drug or alcohol testing, costs for electronic monitoring, or anything else required to successfully complete probation. And on top of all that, felonies often come with court fees or surcharges.
After completing a felony sentence, the person ends up with a criminal record, which can have long-lasting effects on a person's future, impacting employment, immigration status, housing, and civil rights. These secondary effects are often referred to as "collateral consequences."
Felony record. State law often restricts persons convicted of certain crimes from working in particular professions or obtaining a professional license, like a general contractor or cosmetology license. A felony conviction can affect housing options as well—sometimes making an individual (and family) no longer eligible for federal housing. Those convicted of sexual offenses can face severe restrictions on where they may live and usually must register as a sex offender in each place they live or visit. Some states restrict the civil rights of felons by barring them from voting, serving on juries, or possessing firearms. A felony conviction can also have immigration consequences, affecting a person's legal status in the country and ability to remain in the United States.
Expungement. A state's expungement laws might help lessen the negative impact of a criminal record. Expungement laws allow a former offender to petition (apply) to seal or hide a criminal record from public view. Generally, a person must complete the felony sentence and remain crime-free for a period of time before seeking an expungement. Check out this article for more information, "When Can I Get My Criminal Record Expunged?"
Given the serious and lasting consequences of a felony conviction, it's important to talk to a lawyer if you've been charged with a felony. A lawyer in your jurisdiction can help you prepare the best defense and help explain and minimize the risks and consequences of a felony conviction.