The felony/misdemeanor distinction in Will County, Illinois forms the basic structure underlying the state’s criminal-offense classification system. There are actually three types of criminal offenses in Illinois: felonies, misdemeanors, and petty offenses. Petty offenses are the least-serious offenses and are punishable by fine only (i.e. no jail time), whereas felonies and misdemeanors carry the potential for a term of imprisonment. This article will focus on the distinction between felonies and misdemeanors, since the spectrum of consequences involved in these types of offenses is more nuanced.

Why does the state even bother with these labels? The practice of categorizing crimes based on severity arises out of society’s long-held belief that “the punishment should fit the crime.” The more serious the offense is, the more serious the punishment should be. Someone who commits a minor crime—i.e. one that is only minimally harmful to society—ought not be punished with life in prison, just as someone who kills in cold blood mustn’t be let off with a mere slap on the wrist. The Illinois system of categorizing and classifying offenses provides judges with guidelines and instructions for penalizing wrongdoers “appropriately.”

Misdemeanors are considered “lesser offenses,” whereas felonies are more serious. The primary characteristic defining the two types of offenses is the amount of possible jail time for each: a maximum of one year (actually, 364 days) for misdemeanors, and a minimum of one year for felonies. The place of incarceration differs as well: misdemeanants serving less than a year remain in county jail, whereas felons are sent to the state penitentiary (the Illinois Department of Corrections).

Note that not all felony or misdemeanor convictions will result in jail time. There are a variety of authorized dispositions Illinois judges may choose from when sentencing a defendant convicted upon a guilty plea or verdict. The most common are fines, restitution, supervision, probation, conditional discharge, and imprisonment. Judges have significant discretion when it comes to sentencing, and unless the legislature has enacted a mandatory minimum sentence for the particular crime charged, the judge may decide that incarceration is too harsh and impose a milder disposition, such as probation or supervision, instead. Misdemeanor offenses may be punished by a mere fine (up to $2,500) or supervision, but the judge is free to fashion a more severe sentence in light of the circumstances.

Even Will County felony convictions do not necessarily mean automatic jail time. Especially if the defendant is a first-time offender, the judge may determine that a fine and/or probation is most appropriate. However, a felony cannot be punished by fine only; the judge must sentence a convicted felon to probation, conditional discharge, or imprisonment. A fine or order of restitution may be imposed in addition to one of these more serious dispositions, but no convicted felon can pay his way out of trouble (at least in theory).

Felonies and misdemeanors are further broken down into classes. In Illinois, felonies are designated as Class X (the most serious) through Classes 1-4 (Class 4 being the least serious). Misdemeanors are classified as A, B, or C, in descending order of severity. As mentioned above, petty offenses are the least serious of all offenses, ranking even below Class C misdemeanors. On the other end of the spectrum, first-degree murder is the most serious criminal offense under Illinois law, occupying a class all its own (even more severe than a Class X felony).

Another major difference between misdemeanors and felonies relates to their permanency on your criminal record. Most misdemeanors can be sealed, whereas only a handful of felonies can be sealed. Criminal record sealing is often an essential step in “starting over” for anyone convicted of a crime, since employers and landlords often conduct background checks on prospective employees or tenants. This practice makes it difficult for applicants with convictions on their rap sheets to find jobs or places to live. Therefore, whether your rap sheet reads “F” or “M” may affect your entire future.

For more information on felonies and misdemeanors, and for help sealing your criminal record in Joliet or Will County, contact an experienced Illinois criminal defense attorney such as Hamilton & Antonsen at 815.729.9220.

Written by: Sarah Hanneken