Criminal Law - Felony and Misdemeanor

Criminal law is defined as “a body of rules and statutes that defines conduct prohibited by the government because it threatens and harms public safety and welfare, and that establishes punishment to be imposed for the commission of such acts.” Crimes typically fall into two categories misdemeanors and felonies; the classification of each is based on the circumstances surrounding the criminal activity and the resulting punishment that may be imposed. The maximum punishment for the crime committed is ultimately how misdemeanors are differentiated from felonies. For a clearer explanation let’s look at each type of crime separately.


A misdemeanor is a criminal act that may be punished for no more than a one year prison sentence. In most cases a misdemeanor results in a fine. These crimes are typically considered to be less significant, or less severe criminal acts than felonies. Misdemeanors cover crimes against everything from personal property to serious traffic violations. Some of the most common misdemeanors include, but are in no way limited to, reckless driving, manslaughter, theft, vandalism, assault, battery, kidnapping, public intoxication, and possession of illegal drugs, just to name a few.


A felony is a more serious offense. Felonies may be classified as non-violent or violent depending upon the act committed and the circumstances surrounding it.  Non-violent felonies typically include activities concerning drugs or property, for example intent to distribute illegal drugs or vandalism of federal property. Non-violent felonies may also include white collar crimes such as fraud, embezzlement, and tax evasion.

On the other hand, violent felonies are classified as offenses that include elements or acts of threat or unwarranted force against another individual. These types of felonies include acts of aggregated and sexual assault, rape, murder or attempted murder, and armed robbery. . All felonies are crimes that result in a minimal punishment of imprisonment exceeding one year. In a serious felony case the crime may warrant a severe punishment such as life in prison or for particularly heinous crimes and circumstances, a sentence to be executed may be issued.

The Death Penalty:

The most serious punishment for felonies is capital punishment or the death penalty. This has been a controversial issue for years in the United States and continues to be a prevalent topic in our government to this day. While not all states sanction the death penalty, 34, including North Carolina, do. According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) in Washington D.C., sentencing for the death penalty has been declining drastically since the 1990s. However, it is still a present threat to violent offenders.

Studies have shown that the death penalty is the most prevalent in the South, with over 1000 prisoners being executed since 1976. This accounts for about 80% of all executions in the U.S. However, this does coincide with the highest number of murders being committed in the Southern states. .  The two states having executed the most prisoners are Texas and Virginia, accounting for over half of the executions in the South.  The states in the northeast have the lowest number of execution rates, accounting for less than 1% of the executions in the United States.

According to data gathered by the DPIC, most convicts, over half of all executed have been white males, followed closely by blacks then Hispanics. A majority, over 70%, of the victims whose cases resulted in the death penalty were white as well. Interestingly, female prisoners on death row are few and far between. Only 60 women in the United States were on death row as of January 2011, accounting for less than 2% of the death row population. To this day, only 12 women have actually been executed since the 1970s.

The most common method of execution is by lethal injection, followed by electrocution, and the gas chamber. Today, most states have moved to lethal injection as the sole or primary method of execution. Check out your state’s death penalty history and laws as well as current data and statistics.

The death penalty is an expensive endeavor, in most states with the death penalty, it costs a minimum of a million dollars over the cost of life imprisonment to execute a prisoner. In North Carolina alone the cost of the death penalty is approximately $2.16 million over the cost of life in prison for each individual executed. The most astounding numbers come from California where executions cost approximately 114 million per year past the cost of the convict’s lives in prison. Over 250 million dollars of taxpayer’s money has gone to executions in the United States.

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