What Are the Differences Between Crimes Classified As Felonies and Misdemeanors?

The difference between misdemeanors and felonies are that if the law for a crime has a punishment of incarceration for longer than a year, most states define it as a felony, Nolo says. If the punishment is for one year or less, it is usually a misdemeanor.

Punishments for most misdemeanors, aside from jail time, include paying a fine or restitution, performing community service, and probation, Nolo says. Defendants charged with a misdemeanor crime usually have the right to a jury trial, and indigent defendants usually have the right to court-appointed attorneys. Some states subdivide their criminal statutes by degree or class, classifying more serious misdemeanors as gross misdemeanors. The classification of the crime determines the severity of the punishment.

Felonies are more serious than misdemeanors and generally involve a threat of serious physical harm, but they also include fraud schemes. Some misdemeanor crimes committed by repeat offenders can be elevated to felonies, Nolo says. Felonies carry potential sentences that range from time already served to a life sentence without the possibility of parole or the death sentence. States may also subdivide felonies by degree or class. Some states have "wobblers," which are crimes that can fall into either category. This type of crime may be a felony at the time of trial and drop to a misdemeanor at the time of sentencing.