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A misdemeanor (American English) or misdemeanour (British English) is any "lesser" criminal act in some common law legal systems. Misdemeanors are generally punished less severely than felonies, but theoretically more so than administrative infractions (also known as minor, petty or summary offences) and regulatory offences. Many misdemeanors are punished with monetary fines.
Distinction between felonies and misdemeanors
In the United States, the federal government generally considers a crime punishable with incarceration for one year or less to be a misdemeanor. All other crimes are considered felonies. Many states also employ this distinction.
A misdemeanor is considered a crime of low seriousness, and a felony one of high seriousness. A principle of the rationale for the degree of punishment meted out is that the punishment should fit the crime. One standard for measurement is the degree to which a crime affects others or society. Measurements of the degree of seriousness of a crime have been developed.
The distinction between felonies and misdemeanors has been abolished by several common law jurisdictions (e.g. Australia). These jurisdictions have generally adopted some other classification: in the Commonwealth nations of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, the crimes are divided into summary offences and indictable offences. The Republic of Ireland, a former member of the Commonwealth, also uses these divisions.
Typical misdemeanors and sentences
In some jurisdictions, those who are convicted of a misdemeanor are known as misdemeanants (as contrasted with those convicted of a felony who are known as felons). Depending on the jurisdiction, examples of misdemeanors may include: petty theft, prostitution, public intoxication, simple assault, disorderly conduct, trespass, vandalism, reckless driving, possession of cannabis and in some jurisdictions first-time possession of certain other drugs, and other similar crimes.
Punishments for misdemeanors
In the United States, misdemeanors are typically crimes with a maximum punishment of 12 months of incarceration, typically in a local jail as contrasted with felons, who are typically incarcerated in a prison. Jurisdictions such as Massachusetts are a notable exception where the maximum punishment of some misdemeanors is up to 2.5 years. People who are convicted of misdemeanors are often punished with probation, community service, short jail term, or part-time imprisonment; served on the weekends.
Misdemeanors usually do not result in the loss of civil rights, but may result in loss of privileges, such as professional licenses, public offices, or public employment. Such effects are known as the collateral consequences of criminal charges. This is more common when the misdemeanor is related to the privilege in question (such as the loss of a taxi driver's license after a conviction for reckless driving), or when the misdemeanor involves moral turpitude – and in general is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. One prominent example of this is found in the United States Constitution, which provides that the President may be impeached and subsequently removed from office if found guilty by Congress for "high crimes and misdemeanors". The definition of a "high crime" is left to the judgment of Congress.
In Singapore, misdemeanors generally are sentenced to months[clarification needed] of jail sentence but with individual crimes[clarification needed] suspects are sentenced to a harsher sentence. The penalty of vandalism is a fine not exceeding S$2,000 or imprisonment not exceeding three years, and also corporal punishment of not less than three strokes and not more than eight strokes of the cane.
Depending on the jurisdiction, several classes of misdemeanors may exist; the forms of punishment can vary widely between those classes. For example, the federal and state governments in the United States divide misdemeanors into several classes, with certain classes punishable by jail time and others carrying only a fine. In New York law, a Class A Misdemeanor carries a maximum sentence of one year of imprisonment, while a Class B Misdemeanor "shall not exceed three months."
In the United States, when a statute does not specify the class, it is referred to as an unclassified misdemeanor. Legislators usually enact such laws when they wish to impose penalties that fall outside the framework specified by each class. For instance, Virginia has four classes of misdemeanors, with Class 1 and Class 2 misdemeanors being punishable by twelve-month and six-month jail sentences, respectively, and Class 3 and Class 4 misdemeanors being non-jail offenses payable by fines. First-time cannabis possession is an unclassified misdemeanor in Virginia punishable by up to 30 days in jail rather than the normal fines and jail sentences of the four classes. New York has three classes of misdemanors: A, B, and Unclassified.
England and Wales
- Convicted felon
- Federal crime
- Indictable offence
- Misdemeanor murder
- Summary offence
- 18 U.S.C. § 3559
- Doing Justice - The Choice of Punishments, A VONHIRSCH, 1976, p.220
- Criminology, Larry J. Siegel
- An Economic Analysis of the Criminal Law as Preference-Shaping Policy, Duke Law Journal, Feb 1990, Vol. 1, Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, 
- Offense Seriousness Scaling: An Alternative to Scenario Methods, Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Volume 9, Number 3, 309-322, doi:10.1007/BF01064464 James P. Lynch and Mona J. E. Danner, 
- Crimes Act 1958 (Vic., Australia) s. 332B(1), Crimes Act 1900 (NSW., Australia) s. 580E(1)
- See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 3559
- N.Y. Penal L. § 70.15 (1), (2). Found at New York State Assembly website. Accessed August 6, 2013.
- § 18.2-11. Punishment for conviction of misdemeanor, Code of Virginia.
- § 18.2-250.1. Possession of marijuana unlawful, Code of Virginia.
- N.Y. Penal L. § 55.05 (2). Found at New York State Assembly website. Accessed August 6, 2013.
- O. Hood Phillips. A First Book of English Law. Sweet and Maxwell. Fourth Edition. 1960. Page 151.
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