By Les Rosen, Employment Screening Resources

Under the laws of most states, crimes are generally placed into one of three categories:

A Felony is a serious offense that is punishable by a sentence to a state prison. Note the use of the word punishable, as opposed to actually punished. The distinction is important because a person can be convicted of a felony but may not go to prison. How does that work? Depending upon the state and the crime, there are certain felonies wherein a judge can give a defendant felony probation. This typically occurs with a relatively less-serious felony committed by a relatively less-serious offender. An example may be a first time felony drug offender convicted of a less-serious drug offense such as possession of a small amount of drugs for sale.

If a defendant receives felony probation, the court can still sentence him to custody but in the local county jail. If the defendant violates his probation, the court then has the option of sending the defendant to state prison. That obviously creates a great deal of incentive for a felony defendant to not violate probation.

A Misdemeanor is a less serious offense that is only punishable by local jail time at the county level. Typically a misdemeanor may be punishable by up to one year in the county jail in the custody of the local county sheriff and a fine up to $1,000. A court can also impose terms and conditions of probation such as discussed above.

An Infraction is a public offense punishable only by a fine. This is typically a traffic violation such as an illegal left turn, speeding, or seat belt not fastened.

However, nothing in hte law is really that simple.  There is a fourth category — Wobblers.  That term designates an offense that can be either a misdemeanor or a felony offense, depending upon how the prosecuting attorney chooses to file the charges or how a judge views the offense or the offender. In California for example, a commercial burglary can be either a misdemeanor or a felony.

Finally, in some states, such as New York or New Jersey, there are public offenses that by statue are not considered to be criminal, even though in most states the act would be classified as a crime.

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