By law, all crimes are defined as either felonies or misdemeanors and it's important to understand the difference.
When a suspect is charged by prosecutors, the charges will specify whether the crime is being treated as a misdemeanor or a felony. If you know that information, you know how serious the potential sentence could be for that defendant.
That's because Arizona, like most states, separates misdemeanors and felonies based on the potential term of imprisonment for a crime. So what exactly is the cutoff?
In general, misdemeanors represent less serious crimes. That means crimes that don't involve injury or the threat of physical harm such as underage drinking, drug possession, and non-violent petty theft.
Felonies are reserved for serious crimes that involve injury or death. In Arizona that includes arson, manslaughter, extreme DUIs, murder, and rape.
If you've been charged with a misdemeanor, that means the potential sentence is no more than 6 months in Arizona. You can also be charged a fine of no more than $2,500.
Felony charges can include any length of incarceration including life in prison. Since Arizona allows the death penalty, that's a potential sentence for serious felony charges after a victim is killed.
Because defendants convicted of a misdemeanor have shorter terms of imprisonment, they're generally held in a local jail. But the longer sentences for felony convictions are often served in state prison.
That's not dictated by law, but rather by state and local resources.
Arizona law further defines both misdemeanors and felonies by separating them into different classes. There are three classes of misdemeanors and six felony classes.
The lower the class number, the more serious the potential punishment. A Class 3 misdemeanor has a maximum sentence of 30 days in jail, while a Class 1 misdemeanor can be up to six months.
When it comes to felonies, a Class 6 felony can carry only up to one year in prison, while a Class 1 felony can result in 25 years to life in prison, or even the death penalty in some cases.
The crime you're charged with can make a big difference when it comes time for sentencing, so make sure to discuss your options with your Phoenix criminal defense attorney. Knowing the potential punishment will help you make more informed choices.