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Different Types of Criminal Charges: An Overview

There are many different types of crimes that can be categorized in many different ways. In the United States, for the purpose of law enforcement, there are three main classifications of criminal charges: felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions. Each classification is distinguished by how serious the offense is and the extent of the punishment a criminal convicted of the offense can receive. 

In this article, we’ll explain the different types of criminal charges and give examples of each.


A felony is the most serious classification of crime. Felonies are punishable by more than a year in prison and, in the most serious cases, even capital punishment or life in prison without parole. 

Not only can the person who committed the offense be charged with a felony, but so can anybody who aided or abetted the felon before, during, or after the crime. 

Most states have different classifications of felonies based on how serious the crime and its punishment are.

In most states, felonies are classified as such:

  • Class A: if the maximum term of imprisonment authorized is life imprisonment or if the maximum penalty is death.
  • Class B: if the maximum term of imprisonment authorized is twenty-five years or more
  • Class C: if the maximum term of imprisonment authorized is less than twenty-five years but ten or more years
  • Class D: if the maximum term of imprisonment authorized is less than ten years but five or more years
  • Class E: if the maximum term of imprisonment authorized is less than five years but more than one year.

Examples of felonies include:

  • Aggravated assault
  • Manufacturing of drugs
  • Drug distribution
  • Animal cruelty
  • Manslaughter
  • Treason
  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Arson
  • Kidnapping
  • Felony assault
  • Tax evasion
  • Grand theft
  • Elder abuse

There are multiple factors that can influence the sentencing of any given felony. For example, judges may be more lenient with first-time offenders.


A misdemeanor is a classification of crime that is less serious than a felony.  Misdemeanors are punishable by less than a year in prison and sometimes only receive community service, probation, or fines. If a criminal is sentenced to prison time for a misdemeanor, they will often be able to serve their time in local county jails instead of high-security prisons.

Most states have different classifications of misdemeanors based on how serious the crime is and its punishment. 

In most states, misdemeanors are classified as such:

  • Class A: if the maximum term of imprisonment authorized is one year or less but more than six months
  • Class B: if the maximum term of imprisonment authorized is six months or less but more than thirty days
  • Class C: if the maximum term of imprisonment authorized is thirty days or less but more than five days

Examples of misdemeanors include:

  • Shoplifting
  • Tampering with evidence 
  • Being drunk in public
  • Domestic violence
  • Reckless driving
  • Indecent exposure
  • Prostitution
  • Driving under the influence without an injury 
  • Trespassing 
  • Petty theft
  • Driving on a suspended license 
  • Simple assault
  • Leaving an animal unattended in a vehicle causing significant injury
  • Drug possession
  • Vehicle registration fraud 

In certain cases, misdemeanors may be treated as felonies. For example, driving under the influence is usually classified as a misdemeanor, but can become a felony if somebody is killed or if it is not the driver’s first DUI offense.


Infractions, often called petty crimes, are crimes for which jail time is not usually a possible sentence. Most infractions are punishable by fines and do not even usually require the offender to go to court. 

Many infractions are violations of local laws or ordinances used as deterrence to disruptive or dangerous behaviors. 

Examples of infractions include:

  • Speed limits in school zones
  • No parking zones
  • Traffic ordinances
  • Anti-noise ordinances 
  • Operating a business with the proper licenses
  • Improperly disposing of trash 

There are instances in which an infraction can rise to the level of a more serious crime. For example, the infraction of running a stop sign may be treated as a misdemeanor if somebody is hurt as a result. 

Other Classifications of Crimes

In addition to the felony/misdemeanor/infraction system, there are also several other ways that crimes can be classified. 

One classification system divides criminal acts into the following five categories:

  • Crimes against a person -  Crimes that result in physical or mental harm to another person including forms of homicide and other violent crimes such as assault, battery, arson, child abuse, domestic abuse, kidnapping, and rape.
  • Crimes against property - Crimes that interfere with the property of another party, resulting in the deprivation of the use or enjoyment of property. This category includes burglary, larceny, robbery, auto theft, and shoplifting.
  • Inchoate crimes - Crimes that were initiated but not completed or acts that assist in the commission of another crime. This category includes aiding and abetting, attempt, and conspiracy.
  • Statutory crimes - Crimes that are prohibited by statute in order to deter individuals from engaging in them. This category includes alcohol-related crimes, drug crimes, traffic offenses, and financial/white collar crimes. 
  • Financial crimes - Also called white collar crimes, these are crimes that involve deception or fraud for financial gain. This category includes fraud, blackmail, embezzlement, money laundering, tax evasion, and cybercrime.

One more system of classification is a system that describes various categories of felonies in particular. These categories include:

  • Violent crimes such as first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and robbery
  • Drug crimes such as distributing, selling, or trafficking drugs
  • Property crimes such as grand theft, arson, and vandalism
  • White collar crimes such as embezzlement, securities fraud, and tax evasion

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