Every year state lawmakers consider legislation impacting the criminal justice system. There has been an increased focus in recent years on changing sentencing schemes, primarily within felony classes. As states have shifted and modified felony offenses, they have recognized the need to make adjustments to lower level offenses, such as misdemeanors, as well.
50-State Penalty Analysis
In general, a misdemeanor is a less serious criminal offense than a felony, but more serious than an infraction or violation. A few examples of crimes that typically fall within the misdemeanor classification across the states include lower-level theft offenses, simple assault, impaired driving, disorderly conduct and criminal trespass.
The least serious offenses, often referred to as infractions or violations, are punishable only by fine. Misdemeanors are typically punishable by a fine, incarceration or a combination of the two. Felonies, which are the most serious criminal offenses, are generally penalized by both incarceration and a fine.
Statutes authorize a range of penalties that can be imposed for misdemeanors. These typically include no penalty, time served, a fine with no incarceration, a sentence to probation, incarceration with no fine or a combination of incarceration and a fine. It is the court’s discretion which penalty or combination of penalties to order.
Typically, misdemeanor incarceration is served in jail rather than prison. Jails are generally intended to house individuals for shorter sentences, those less than one year. Alabama statute specifies that the incarceration for a misdemeanor is in a county jail, while Arizona law requires that it be some place other than in the custody of the state department of corrections.
The most common misdemeanor-felony penalty threshold is one year. Generally, misdemeanors are punishable by less than one year or 365 days, whereas felonies are generally subject to more than one year of incarceration. In 24 states the maximum penalty for a misdemeanor is up to one year of incarceration. Nevada explicitly makes a misdemeanor subject to up to 364 days incarceration, whereas felony incarceration starts at 365 days. Tennessee sets the maximum for misdemeanor incarceration at 11 months and 29 days. In Iowa and Vermont, some misdemeanors may result in up to two years of incarceration in jail.
Colorado law, which is fairly unique, specifies that a person convicted of a misdemeanor may be subject to up to 18 months of incarceration. Where the person is incarcerated is based on classification of all the convicted offenses. If any of the offenses is a felony ordered to be served at the same time as the misdemeanor(s), then the sentence will be served in state prison. Otherwise, the term is served in a local jail.
There are a few states where misdemeanors carry permissible sentences longer than one year and the court can send an individual to prison rather than jail. In Pennsylvania, a first-degree misdemeanor conviction can result in up to five years in state prison. New Jersey law authorizes a similar sentence for high misdemeanors.
The majority of states have established multiple levels of misdemeanors based on the severity of the offense. Most states have between two and four separate classifications. Nebraska has the most classes of misdemeanors with seven. Nine states have one general classification for misdemeanors.
Five states—Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi and West Virginia—don’t have any specific classes. In those states, penalties for misdemeanors are specified for each offense rather than providing one overarching penalty. Louisiana statute, for instance, states that simple battery is punishable by up to six months imprisonment, whereas simple assault is punishable by up to 90 days. In Maryland, the penalty for harassment is up to 90 days imprisonment, while burglary in the fourth degree is a misdemeanor that is subject to imprisonment for up to three years.
In general, statutes explicitly permit fines for misdemeanor offenses and this is often the only penalty imposed for these crimes. Statute generally specifies the maximum amount of fine that may be levied.