Even though the world’s first documented codes of laws, the Code of Ur-Nammu, surfaced as early as 2100 B.C. in the ancient Sumer civilization of the Mesopotamia region (modern-day Iraq), the history of felony charges within the American legal system can ultimately be traced back to the earliest developments of common law in England, sometime around the 14th Century.
As a system built on evolving societal principles and past court decisions alike, common law is a fine balance of the rights of individuals and the interest of a greater community, one which has the possibility of being shaped and reshaped with time. It is a system based not on binding written legislation, like civil or statutory law, but rather on court cases and precedent, which take into account the circumstance of both the case at hand and the resolutions of similar cases which have preceded it. In this sense, each case, essentially, becomes part of the greater body of law.
Felony charges were some of the first to be adapted into this legal structure, and originally a felony was used to describe a serious crime that resulted in a forfeiture of all assets, or in some cases, death. The term “felony” itself is taken from the old French words “felon” and “felonie,” which implied a wicked person or an act of wickedness, respectively.
While the exact implications associated with a felony may have certainly changed since felony charges were first issued, a felony has altogether remained somewhat the same in that it is considered the most serious of all crimes within the legal system and it is usually based on the willful intent to commit a crime. The first felony charges, in fact, were often described as crimes of “mens rea,” a Latin phrase used to imply a “guilty mind.”
Today, a felony is used to constitute a major criminal offense that results in over a year in prison or capital punishment, a monetary fine, or most often, both. Other punishments, such as community service, probation, mandatory rehabilitation programs, or a loss of rights- such as the right to vote or serve in the military- are also commonly affixed to felony charges. Less severe criminal offenses with less severe punishments attached are called misdemeanors and such charges usually imply that the fine is lower and prison time does not exceed one year.
As is the nature of most crimes, each felony case will have a set of specific conditions which ultimately decides what punishment is accorded to the law offender. A rape and murder felony, for instance, will naturally hold a different punishment than an attempted burglary felony, much like an assault will be treated differently than a drug possession charge.
In the broadest sense, the severity of conviction is first based on whether or not the felony had any violence associated with it. For this reason, felony charges are separated into those crimes which are violent and those which are non-violent. The latter typically includes property offenses, like fraud, vandalism, and forgery, drug offenses, for both possession and distribution, and corporate, or white-collar, crimes. Violent felony charges, on the other hand, are comprised of manslaughter and murders, attempted murders, rapes, sexual and aggravated assaults, arson, armed robbery, and various degrees of theft.
When there is an initial report of a crime, both violent and nonviolent, and authorities follow through with an arrest, police processing, and any bail proceedings, felony charges are officially brought against an individual during an arraignment or the first criminal court appearance. During this arraignment, the offender, called the “defendant,” will be supplied with a lawyer.
During this preliminary stage, bail is either set or dismissed, Constitutional rights and the felony charges are read to the defendant, and a date for the next court appearance is determined. If bail is available, a bond court decides the exact amount a defendant must pay in order to be released from jail while the felony charges are under investigation.
During the next stage- a settlement conference, or often called a preliminary hearing- the defendant’s lawyer works with authorities to either try and reach a plea bargain, or to get information for the defendant’s defense before the pretrial hearing, during which time the prosecutor provides enough reasonable evidence to a judge to either support and go through with a felony charge, or have the case dismissed altogether based on insufficient “evidentiary standards.” It is during this pretrial or preliminary hearing that felony charges can be dropped to far less severe misdemeanor charges.
If felony charges persist, however, a second arraignment, a pretrial conference, and finally, motion hearings- all of which further establish both the defendant’s plea and trial date, as well as any settlement options, new “discoveries” of the case, and potential witnesses- are set. Once this lengthy process is complete, only then does the actual felony trial occur.
Be it a violent or non-violent felony charge, both types are often further divided into more subsets, either by degrees or classes, based on both the severity of the crime committed and/or on the punishment attached. For the most part, each State typically assigns different felony levels, since most felony sentences are administered at a State-level.
New Jersey, for instance, separates felonies (the term felony is actually replaced by “criminal offense”) by first degree criminal offense charges through those which are considered fourth degree offenses. In contrast, Wisconsin makes Class A through Class I felony distinctions, while Virginia State courts choose Class 1 through Class 6 classifications.
In terms of Federal law, the felony classifications are assigned a letter grade based primarily on the length of imprisonment. The classes are as follows:
Class A felony: capital punishment (the death penalty) or life imprisonment; fines up the $250,000
Class B felony: imprisonment time is 25 years or more; fines up the $250,000
Class C felony: imprisonment time is between 10 and 25 years; fines up the $250,000
Class D felony: imprisonment time is between five and ten years; fines up the $250,000
Class E felony: imprisonment time is between one and five years; fines up the $250,000
If the prison time is below one year, the crimes are then considered misdemeanors, which range from Class A misdemeanors (six months to one year in prison) to infractions, which may have as little as five days in prison, or no prison time at all. In more recent years, the United States Federal Sentencing Commission has been established to ease in the application of such felony charges, and since 1984, it has adapted Federal
Sentencing Guidelines for use in court cases.
In the simplest sense, such guidelines are there to avoid problems which have arisen with “indeterminate sentences” of the past, for which parole officers, not judges, would give far “looser” felony sentences- such as a “10 to 20 year sentence” instead of an absolute 15 year sentence- after the actual conviction. With the Sentencing Guidelines, felony charges are basically given more definite imprisonment terms.
As mentioned above, the majority of felony charges are generally handled through State courts since every State will have its own set of laws regarding felonies. That is not to say that Federal felony convictions are rare by any means. In fact, the main disparity can sometimes be as little as a crime being committed on Federal property as opposed to State property, or being arrested by Federal officers as opposed to State or local authorities.
As a broad separation, felonies most often prosecuted on a State level include, but are not limited to, murder, rape, possession of controlled substances, robbery, shoplifting, domestic violence, and any repeat “under the influence” charges. Federal felony prosecutions, on the other hand, include crimes like bank or mail fraud, bank robbery, smuggling any controlled substance (usually in large quantities), and bribery of public officials, among others.
Although it may not ring true for every case, Federal felony charges often receive much harsher punishments than State-level rulings. In addition, Federal felonies do not have the possibility of being expunged, or cleared, from a convicted offender’s criminal record. While State felony charges have varying expungement rules, most will allow a first-time felony charge to be expunged over time.
Depending on whether a State has a “three-strike law” enacted in legislation, certain repeat felony offenders, specifically ones which are convicted of a felony for the third time, receive mandatory 25 year imprisonment sentences. Depending on the severity of the crime committed, of course, this number could be far more.
Felony charges, even those with the most minimal punishments, can often hold grave consequences for life after prison as well, even for first-time offenders.
When introduced back into society as free men and women, a felony conviction will sometimes pose a major problem when looking for a new job, especially with any workplace involving children, guns or explosive material, or most large companies, which often don’t want the liability of hiring a charged felon. Some insurance companies may also deny coverage to felons, making the adjustment to life out of prison that much harder.