What’s in a Name? Felonies v. Misdemeanors

by Lauren Berry and Robert Dunavant


Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, mistakenly marked the box “Hispanic” as his ethnicity on his 2009 voter registration application.  By doing this, he may have committed a 3rd degree felony, one that pertains to the submission of false information on a voting ballot.   Bush’s mistake is unlikely to cost him the usual penalty: $5,000 and five years in prison. But other people aren’t so lucky.

Brandon Goldner, who was convicted of conspiracy to break and enter, struggles with the hardships to find a job after being charged.  As a result, he says, it’s hard to find work even at a gas station.

“I didn’t have to go to jail,” Goldner said.  “I got five years’ probation with 400 hours of community service.  [But] it set off a chain reaction.  It had a profound impact on my life.”

Recently, his neighbor was robbed.  When he called the police about it, they arrested him instead because of his past charges.

“Now I’m hesitant to call them even if I need help,” Goldner said.  “It took me this long just to come to terms with what I did.  I am a good kid.  Once you’re in it, you’re in it.  I do not wish it upon anyone else.  I am just trying to make my way through it.”

Goldner says the felony has damaged his life.  Just talking about it, he begins to get emotional.  It’s a tough subject, and one that he’s careful to speak about. “When I first sat down and thought of this I cried,” Goldner said.

Receiving a felony or a misdemeanor charge can be a serious offense, but in the state of Tennessee, as elsewhere, a felony can also earn heavier fines, longer sentences, and a lifetime of employment struggles.

Defining Crime

“Felon” comes from the Latin word for a “wicked person.” Accordingly, felonies are supposed to be a category reserved for the most serious cases.  Through the years in America they have been divided into five classes of crime calling for up to 60 years in jail. Misdemeanors, by contrast, are considered less serious crimes that can result in up to a year in jail, with a fine of hundreds of dollars.

Felonies Sentence Fine Crime
Class A 15-60 years in prison $50,000 Ex. Aggravated Rape under the age of 13
Class B 8-30 years in prison $25,000 Ex. Child Pornography
Class C 3-15 years in prison $10,000 Ex. Aggravated Assault
Class D 2-12 years in prison $5,000 Ex. Possession between 10-70 pounds of marijuana
Class E 1-6 years in prison $3,000 Ex. Theft of property worth more than $500 but less than $1,000


Misdemeanor Jail Time Fine Crime
Class A 11 months and 29 days $2,500 Ex. Possession of half an ounce of marijuana
Class B 6 months $500 Ex. Prostitution
Class C 30 days $50 Ex. Public Intoxication

The different types of felony classes range from Class A to Class E.  Class A crimes are the most serious ones that can result in a $50,000 fine with 15-60 years in prison.  Class E crimes are the least punishable by 1-6 years in prison, with a $3,000 fine.  Class E crimes are typically for cases like theft of property worth somewhere between $500-$1,000.

Greg Allen, graduate of Cecil Humphrey’s School of Law and criminal defense attorney for the McAfee Law Firm, explains the different classes of felonies as a matter of punitive sentencing.

“The easiest definition of a felony is a crime where you are facing up to a year or more in jail,” Allen said.  “A misdemeanor is a less serious crime, with a charge up to 12 months in jail, like for a DUI.”

The time for felonies would be served in a state prison rather than a county jail. Felonies include crimes such as homicide, rape, arson, burglary, robbery, and larceny, escaping from a prison, assisting a felony, drug trafficking, child abuse, gun possession, money laundering, and child pornography.  In general, felonies are more serious offenses than misdemeanors.  However, a few misdemeanors may be upgraded to a felony, depending on the nature of the offense. For instance, assault is a misdemeanor charge, unless a deadly weapon is used or if the assault is against a person.

Fewer Rights

Felons must  surrender key  liberties after being convicted.

“Felons lose the right to vote, as well as state and federal benefits,” Allen said.  “If convicted of a felony, you can lose the right to possess a firearm.  If caught with a firearm it’s a federal offense.”

One thing that felons are unable to recognize is what will happen after they have committed their felony.  Clark Peters, attorney of law at West Tennessee Lawyers Association, addresses the consequences of felons and their actions.

“The consequences are usually severe to very severe. Since punishment for felonies versus misdemeanors is significantly harsher, felons find themselves in a lot more trouble. This includes the sentence for the offense they committed and what they will have to endure once they are released from incarceration.”

Securing employment is notoriously hard. A 2008 study by the Urban Institute surveyed more than 700 people released from prison and found that, at the time, only 45 percent were employed. And that was before the nation’s financial meltdown happened. Half of all people serving time behind bars lacked a high school diploma, the U.S. Sentencing Commission concluded in 2012. So ex-offenders already start out with few qualifications.

Beating the Odds

Felonies don’t destroy all opportunity, of course.  There are still places that allow ex-cons to work for their company. Nonprofits have been started in the city of Memphis to help felons get back on their feet.  They help them prepare for interviews and work closely to make sure they are ready to take on the professional world.  There have also been a few job fairs where felons can seek employment.

“So, if one happens to be a felon, life is not all bleak,” said University of Memphis criminal justice professor Doug Franco. “The felony itself on your record alone simply makes several aspects of your life more difficult.”

University of Memphis law professor Tim Kennedy  points to the socioeconomic roots underlying the criminal justice system.

“Several criminals did what they did out of need or because they lacked the finances that wealthy people have to pay for whatever they needed that they could not afford,” Kennedy said.


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