The NCSL Blog


By Amanda Essex

In recent years, changes to state sentencing schemes have focused primarily on felony offenses. However, lawmakers are increasingly making adjustments to sentences for lower-level offenses such as misdemeanors.

man in courtNCSL’s brief on misdemeanor sentencing trends explores these adjustments and the maximum penalties for misdemeanors across the country.

While there is variation across the states as to what crimes are classified as misdemeanors rather than felonies, in general, a misdemeanor is a less serious offense, but rises above a level that would be treated as an infraction or violation.

Examples of crimes that typically fall within the misdemeanor classification across the states include lower-level theft offenses, simple assault, non-habitual impaired driving, disorderly conduct and criminal trespass.

Misdemeanors are subject to a range of penalties, including a fine with no incarceration, a sentence to probation, incarceration with no fine or a combination of these. Misdemeanor incarceration is served in jail rather than prison.

When an offense may be the result of an underlying non-criminal problem such as mental illness, a judge may choose not to impose a sentence of incarceration, but instead divert the person to treatment or services.

Findings from the brief:

  • In 24 states, the maximum penalty for a misdemeanor is up to one year of incarceration.
  • There are a few states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where misdemeanors carry permissible sentences longer than one year and the court can send an individual to prison rather than jail.
  • Most states have established multiple levels of misdemeanors based on the offense severity, typically with from two to four separate classifications.
  • Five states—Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi and West Virginia—don’t have any specific classes, instead setting penalties for each offense individually.
  • In general, statutes explicitly permit fines for misdemeanor offenses and this is often the only penalty imposed for these crimes.
  • Recent trends in drug sentencing have seen states downgrading offenses related to drug possession. 
  • Theft thresholds have also been increased for felony theft, meaning that the dollar amount for a theft to be classified as a felony has been raised.
  • Many of the changes to misdemeanor sentencing have been part of comprehensive, data-driven reforms in states around the country.
  • A few states have explored decriminalizing some traffic offenses in recent years.

One estimate is that there are 13.2 million misdemeanor cases filed in the United States each year, although precise information isn’t available regarding the number of such cases. Even given the limited available data regarding misdemeanors, they clearly impact a significant number of people. This impact is resulting in increased and continued attention from state lawmakers.

This new report was prepared under a partnership project of NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program and The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project (PSPP). PSPP currently has work underway in Michigan, supporting the Michigan Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration.

Among other policy changes, this task force will explore misdemeanor sentencing reforms to help safely reduce jail admissions and length of stay. In addition, Pew will be working with several states to look at ways to improve their systems of community supervision and has a major research report scheduled for release later this year that will include additional NCSL statutory analysis.

Amanda Essex specializes in sentencing and corrections for NCSL.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.