What’s the Difference Between a Felony and a Misdemeanor?

If you are like most people, you probably never gave much thought to the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony until you or a loved one was arrested.

About the only things they have in common are that they are both criminal charges and they both carry some type of possible punishment. Understanding the difference between the two can help you make educated decisions about your case. 


While any criminal charge or conviction is serious, a misdemeanor is typically less damaging in the long run than a felony. Each state sets its own guidelines, but in general, a misdemeanor conviction means you could:

  • Pay a fine
  • Be placed on probation for a year
  • Serve time in your county jail. Depending on the charge it could be 30 days to a year (or 11 months and 29 days). 

 In rare cases, if you are charged with multiple misdemeanors, the judge can decide to “stack” them as consecutive sentences, meaning you would serve the first year for one charge and then a subsequent year for the next charge. Most judges allow sentences to run concurrent, meaning one jail term for all misdemeanor convictions from a single case. 


In all states, a felony charge is more serious than a misdemeanor charge. Felonies are usually reserved for violent crimes, including murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. In many states, crimes also become felonies when they meet a certain financial threshold.

For example, in Tennessee, a theft, including shoplifting, is a misdemeanor unless the merchandise is valued at more than $1,000, at which point it becomes a felony theft charge. Some states attach a felony status to having multiple convictions of the same charge, such as a fourth DUI. Domestic violence can also become a felony charge, often  depending on the severity of injuries, or whether children were assaulted. 

A felony conviction carries more serious consequences including:

  • More than a year in a state or federal penitentiary
  • Stricter and longer probation
  • Steeper fines
  • In states that follow the three strike law, a violent felony can become one of the strikes 

The Aftermath Effect

  • Any time you are convicted of a crime, it can have a negative impact on your life. Some companies will not hire you if you have a criminal conviction, or you might lose a job that you already have. International travel can be restricted – for example Canada typically refuses entry to anyone with a conviction, be it for a misdemeanor or felony. Overall, however, a felony conviction is more damaging in the long run. After effects for a felony conviction can include:
  • The inability to work in certain professions that require a state license – such as psychologist, medical doctor, private investigator and others. While some states provide a path for felons to obtain such licenses, in many it is an automatic rejection of the application. 
  • No public housing allowed – convicted felons are at this point in time, forever prohibited from residing in public housing that is governed through Housing Urban Development (HUD). 
  • Registration required – You have most likely heard about sexual offender registries for those convicted of certain sex crimes, but there are also states that require any convicted felon to register within the first few days or hours of entering the state. Both Nevada and Florida are two such states that require you to register as a convicted felon within a couple of days of entering their borders.

Depending on the state, other issues for convicted felons include:

  • Prohibited from owning or possessing any firearm (though this can also be the case for misdemeanor domestic violence convictions in some states)
  • Voting (Though some states allow felons to regain that right by following certain instructions)
  • Serving on a jury
  • Holding an elected office

Court Process Differences

Misdemeanors are typically handled with one or two court appearances. The judge determines guilt or innocence based on testimony and if guilty, meters out your punishment. 

Felonies require more time and more court appearances. You generally begin in a lower court and then are bound over (Sent into the felony process). A grand jury then hears the prosecutor’s case and either does not indict you or hands down an indictment and the case proceeds to criminal court.

Once in criminal court, it takes several appearances to resolve the case, whether that is a not guilty finding, or a plea deal or a full-on trial and a sentencing if guilty. This process can take months or even years to complete. 


While a felony is more serious than a misdemeanor, any criminal record is a negative thing. The good news is, misdemeanors can sometimes be expunged, meaning after you complete your sentence, you can petition the court to expunge (basically erase) that conviction and records of your arrest.

This information will still be available to a few government agencies, but will not be traceable in public records, employment background checks, etc. In some states, felonies meeting certain criteria are also eligible to expunge.

In addition, sometimes, your attorney will be able to get your felony charges dropped to misdemeanor charges as part of the plea deal, which leaves less of an impact on your record.