The United States of America is a nation of laws. From federal laws all the way down to municipal codes, nearly every aspect of our lives is defined and bound by legislation. All civilizations worthy of the title require laws which govern the way citizens interact with one another, with businesses, and with their governments. Smaller and more homogenous civilizations might need fewer laws, while civilizations with large, diverse populations might require more laws in order to effectively and justly bind all citizens together. It is no wonder, then, that our country—a country made of immigrants, with a population of more than three hundred million residents, a population with diverse cultures and values—has so many laws. Our vast library of laws is not a bad thing, in and of itself, but because we have so many, covering so many different areas of our lives, you should expect to break a few—whether intentionally or otherwise—during your lifetime.
Just as you should understand the law as it pertains to whatever it is that you are doing, you should understand the consequences for breaking the law. Those consequences are bundled into three broad categories, and each category carries with it a different set of punitive outcomes.
The lowest classification of crime, and the kind of criminal behavior we are all guilty of on occasion, even if we’re not caught. Common infractions include jaywalking, illegal parking, minor traffic violations, and failing to pick up after your dog. Infractions are typically punishable by fines and do not carry jail sentences or even probation; for that reason, infractions cannot be resolved with a trial by jury.
Many cities and counties define some violations as civil, rather than criminal, infractions. Failing to have a leash for your dog in a public area, for instance, is often classified as a civil infraction.
Usually defined as those crimes punishable by up to one year in jail, though sentencing can include fines, probation, community service, and part-time imprisonment. Some sentences may include a combination of those, and some of those punitive cocktails may be paired with a short jail sentence for good measure. Defendants charged with misdemeanors often have the right to a trial by jury.
Many crimes that are classified as misdemeanors for a first offense are classified as felonies thereafter.
The most serious kind of crime, felonies carry the most severe consequences. A felony conviction does not necessarily guarantee imprisonment, but a prison sentence for a felony is rarely shorter than a year; sometimes, those sentences are substantially longer, even permanent. Persons convicted of felonies and sentenced to prison are typically held in state or federal prisons, rather than the local jails that house criminals convicted of misdemeanors.
Some felonies, like murder and treason, may be punishable by death.
It is important to note that misdemeanor and felony convictions alike can and do result in civil consequences that may affect convicts long after they have fulfilled their sentences. Collateral consequences, as they are known, can range from losing the right to vote, to losing the right to own a firearm, to becoming permanently ineligible for federal education loans. There are thousands of collateral consequences, and their impacts on convicts’ lives are just as real and disruptive as are the direct consequences of sentencing.
These are the broad categories of crime and punishment, but criminal law has enough nuance to fill libraries with books. Crimes, and the punishments that go with them, vary from city to city, and from state to state. Knowing the differences between infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies is a great step toward knowing your rights and responsibilities as a citizen, but nothing can replace a working knowledge of the specific laws and possible punishments that pertain to you under any given circumstance in any given location. Most laws are now available online, so when you have any doubt: put your Internet search skills to use. If you think you may have broken a law, or if you have been contacted by a law enforcement officer, contact an attorney.