The NCSL Blog


By Amanda Essex

In a follow-up to NCSL’s brief on misdemeanor sentencing trends, the new report “Misdemeanor Justice: Statutory Guidance for Sentencing” looks at how statutes provide guidance in misdemeanor sentencing.

gavelMore than 13 million misdemeanor cases are filed in the U.S. each year, according to a recent estimate. Even though penalties for misdemeanors are shorter and less restrictive than those for felonies, the collateral consequences associated with misdemeanor convictions can be just as disruptive, significantly impacting the lives of individuals who are charged.

Courts have broad discretion to determine what penalty to impose for a misdemeanor conviction. However, many legislatures have decided to give courts more direction on the sentencing decision under certain circumstances.

Findings from the brief:

  • In a handful of states, misdemeanor offenses can only be penalized with a fine.
  • In 24 states the maximum penalty for a misdemeanor is up to one year of incarceration.
  • There are six states with specific classes of misdemeanors subject to more than one year of incarceration, going as high as five years in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
  • “Habitual offender” laws can result in increased lengths of incarceration but vary in the number of convictions required before the enhanced penalty can be imposed.
  • Some of the states with habitual offender laws for misdemeanors include Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin.
  • Most states have established statutory maximums for the length of a sentence to probation.
  • In 34 states, the maximum term for misdemeanor probation is between one and three years, with 16 states setting the maximum at two years.

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).

Amanda Essex specializes in sentencing and corrections for NCSL.

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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.