Why Are Some Crimes Considered A Felony?

Feel free to search our website to learn about the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony if you require additional information. For brevity, though, the only difference that you need to know is that felonies are more serious and can land someone in hotter water (i.e. the difference between county jail and federal prison). But there’s a more nuanced reason that the distinction between misdemeanors and felonies exists. 

When a crime is committed, the legal response is an organized one. Police will make an arrest if they believe a particular suspect has committed the crime. During the arrest, the subject will be charged with whatever seems to suit the situation best. Later, the Attorney General’s office will decide whether or not to prosecute and whether or not the original charges should stick. Usually, they leave them as is. Sometimes, the charges are trumped up. 

And that’s where the more nuanced distinction between a misdemeanor and felony comes in. 

Because the AG’s office knows that an arrested individual is far more likely to cooperate — i.e. either confess or lawyer up and take a plea deal — if the person knows that the consequences are greater, the prosecutor and felony defense lawyer will often agree to take the original charges and reduce them. Poof! The original charges — which, let’s say, involved a felony or two — vanish into thin air. Their replacement? Misdemeanors! 

This might sound great for both parties. After all, the justice system is far more likely to get a check in the “win” column while the convicted individual skates by with far less severe consequences for the actual crime committed. 

Which would you choose if you were picked up for criminal activity? A trial — for which you have the right — with greater consequences if you lose. Or smaller legal expenses (fewer billable hours for your lawyer) when you confess as part of a plea deal, knowing that the consequences for your actions will be reduced. It’s not difficult to understand which choice most individuals make.

There are drawbacks to such a system.

The biggest is the most obvious. An innocent individual is far more likely to insist on going to court than a criminal whose guilt can be proved beyond reasonable doubt. If that innocent individual is convicted — and thousands have been since the 80s — then they will inevitably end up in prison for far longer, while someone who is actually guilty of the crime might end up with time in a relaxing county jail. 

The other drawback is money. The system isn’t just about winning. It’s about mitigating the financial loss for taxpayers. Convince someone to take a deal with lesser consequences, and you’ll have spared the system the burden of a costly trial that might not even end in a guilty conviction. When such a system exists, though, it’s easy to see how it could become a cash cow, more about money than putting dangerous felons behind bars. Some argue this is why America has the world’s largest rate of incarceration.