The most common way of classifying crime is by seriousness, or misdemeanor versus felony. Misdemeanor crimes are less serious than felonies. The person who commits a misdemeanor is called a “misdemeanant” and the person who commits a felony is called a “felon.” In early English law, felonies were those offenses that could lead to death as punishment and forfeiture of the felon’s property. Committing a misdemeanor did not necessarily mean that the crime was a minor one. It simply meant the misdemeanant could not be punished with the death penalty or lose his or her property.
Misdemeanors did not exist in English law until the 16th century, and then they were identified generally as transgressions against the royal peace. In contemporary criminal law, the states’ penal codes specifically define each misdemeanor crime. Typically, misdemeanors are lower-grade or -degree offenses in criminal codification and of lesser gravity and seriousness. Usually, misdemeanants are treated more leniently by criminal law than are felons, which means they receive less punishment while felons receive harsher sentences. Punishments for a misdemeanor might be a fine, probation, or a jail sentence of less than a year. Some states define the seriousness of the offense according to the place of punishment, such as prison for felonies and jail for misdemeanors.
Examples of misdemeanors are disorderly conduct, petty theft, prostitution, public intoxication, trespassing, and vandalism. However, the list of misdemeanor crimes is nearly endless. For instance, Texas has 903 misdemeanor crimes listed in its penal code. The distinction between misdemeanor and felony affects a defendant’s destiny in the criminal justice system. Usually law enforcement agencies use their discretion to arrest those defendants who have committed serious crimes rather than misdemeanor crimes. Misdemeanors also have a different court level than felonies. Trial courts of limited jurisdiction preside only over cases that involve misdemeanors and lawsuits for small amount of money. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, 15 percent of convicted defendants in courts of limited jurisdiction are sentenced to incarceration, 50 percent receive probation, and 25 percent are fined.
The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says criminal defendants are entitled to a right to trial by jury. However, the U.S. Supreme Court in Lewis v. United States in 1996 declared that this provision only applies to people accused of serious offenses. People who face less than 6 months in jail for a charge are not entitled to a jury trial and instead go for a bench trial, where the presiding judge determines innocence or guilt and, if the latter, the punishment within the prescribed statutes.
Like all other defendants, misdemeanants also are entitled to have an attorney. In Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972), the court required adequate legal representation for anyone, including indigents, facing a jail or prison sentence if convicted.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2005. Federal Criminal Case Processing, 2002. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
- Cole, George and Christopher Smith. 2006. The American System of Criminal Justice. 11th ed. New York: Thomson Wadsworth.
- Lindquist, John H. 1998. Misdemeanor Crime, Trivial Criminal Pursuit. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Nemeth, Charles. 2004. Criminal Law. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Schmalleger, Frank. 2006. Criminal Justice Today. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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