A felony is the most serious category of criminal prosecution in the U.S. justice system. Legal policies and procedures in recent decades, including the “three strikes law” have resulted in 19 million Americans with felony convictions, according to a 2017 study.
In general, a felony is any crime that is punishable by one or more years in prison. In the 10 year period 1994-2004, 94 percent of felonies were adjudicated in states’ superior courts. Federal courts also try felony cases that fit specific criteria, including those that cross state lines, such as drug trafficking.
The category of felony crimes is broad, encompassing murder and repeated drug possession offenses, violent domestic assaults and possession of a weapon in the commission of a crime like burglary. While a felony charge is generally reserved for crimes of violence or those that victimize others, a person may be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony for the same crime. If a person has multiple previous convictions, particularly for something like domestic assault, a subsequent arrest on the same charge may elevate the issue to a felony. Similarly, some states have “three strikes” laws that require prosecutors to charge a repeat offender with a felony-level charge on his third offense. As a result, the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that felony convictions increased 24 percent between 1994 and 2004.
When a person is arrested for a crime, police and prosecutors research his or her criminal record to determine if the offense is typical behavior. A person with an extensive and escalating record of criminal offenses and convictions is more likely to be charged with a felony, even if he or she did not commit a violent crime.
Felonies are classified by their severity and given categories by state laws, according to the maximum sentence possible. Infotracer.com allows anyone to search his own or another person’s criminal history and find out if that person has been in jail or prison.
Data show that those arrested for violent crimes are more likely to be prosecuted than those arrested for property crimes or misdemeanors. Many people who are arrested and charged are released on probation, often without a trial, and do not serve prison time. Those who are convicted of murder generally get an automatic appeal of their sentence unless that appeal is waived.
Having a felony conviction on one’s criminal record can severely limit a person’s prospects for the future, including in education, housing, and careers. In addition, convicted felons are generally barred from voting or running for office, professional licenses, and owning firearms. This is called “collateral consequences” and attempts have been made to bring the issue to the attention of prosecutors and judges.
Many states have provisions for sealing or expunging a criminal record provided that the individual has stayed out of trouble for a specific period of years. However, expungement of a felony record is rare, and most often reserved for those who can prove that the prosecutor made an error resulting in a wrongful conviction. Under certain circumstances, a person can also apply to the state governor for a pardon, but those are rare as well.