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1.6: Classification of Crimes

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    Crimes can be classified in many ways, as determined by individual legislatures. Crimes can be grouped by subject matter. For example, crimes like assault, robbery, or sexual assault tend to injure another person’s body. These crimes tend to be classified as “crimes against the person.” If a crime tends to injure a person by depriving him or her of property or by damaging property, it tends to be classified as a “crime against property.” These classifications are basically for convenience and are not imperative to the study of substantive criminal law. As you will see in subsequent chapters, individual crimes are classified in broad terms for organizational convenience.

    More important and substantive is the classification of crimes according to the severity of punishment. This is called grading. Grading is simply another way of describing a crime’s seriousness. Legislatures generally classify crimes into three categories: felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions. Often, the culpable mental state or the type of injury affects a crime’s grading. See Alaska Statute 11.81.250. Mala in se crimes, which are inherently evil, like murder are generally graded higher than malum prohibitum crimes, which are crimes not inherently evil, but rather represent conduct that is deemed socially unacceptable, for example, prostitution, gambling, and drug crimes.


    Felonies are the most serious crimes. They are either supported by a heinous intent, like the intent to kill, or accompanied by an extremely serious result, such as loss of life, grievous injury, or destruction/loss of property. Felonies are serious, so they are graded the highest, and all sentencing options are available. Depending on the jurisdiction and the crime, the sentence could be capital punishment, prison time, a fine, or alternative sentencing such as probation, community service, or home confinement. Potential consequences of a felony conviction also include the inability to vote, own a firearm, or even participate in certain careers. These are generally referred to as the collateral consequences of a felony conviction.

    In Alaska, the state legislature has four classifications of felony crimes: Unclassified, Class A, Class B, and Class C. Each felony offense is classified in one of these groups, which dictates the minimum and maximum sentences available to the sentencing judge. See AS 11.81.250.


    Misdemeanors are less serious offenses than felonies, either because the intent requirement is less culpable or because the injury or result is less serious. Misdemeanors are usually punishable by jail time of one year or less, a smaller fine, or alternative sentencing like probation, community service, or home confinement. Similar to felonies, in Alaska, there are two classes of misdemeanors: Class A misdemeanors and Class B Misdemeanors. Generally, Class A misdemeanors carry a maximum term of imprisonment of up to 1 year in jail, whereas Class B misdemeanors carry a maximum term of 90 days in jail.

    In most states (but not Alaska), incarceration for a misdemeanor is served in jail rather than in prison. The difference between jail and prison is that cities and counties operate jails, whereas the state or federal government operates prisons, depending on the crime. The restrictive nature of the confinement also differs between jail and prison. Jails are for defendants who have committed less serious offenses, so they are generally less restrictive than prisons. In Alaska, the Department of Corrections, an executive-branch agency, operates all prisons and jails within the state. When a convicted person is ordered to a term of incarceration, the person is ordered to the “care and custody” of the Department of Corrections (DOC). It is up to DOC where the person will be housed, not the judge.


    Felony-misdemeanors are crimes that the government can prosecute and punish as either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the particular circumstances accompanying the offense. The discretion of whether to prosecute the crime as a felony or misdemeanor usually belongs to the prosecutor, who makes the charging decision. For example, if a person commits the crime of driving under the influence, the crime may be charged as a misdemeanor, unless the person has at least two prior DUI convictions. If the person has multiple prior convictions, the prosecutor may choose to charge the person with felony DUI (a class C felony) instead of a misdemeanor. See e.g., AS 28.35.030(n).


    Infractions, which can also be called violations, are the least serious offenses and include minor offenses such as jaywalking and motor vehicle offenses that result in a simple traffic ticket. Infractions are generally punishable by a fine or alternative sentencing such as traffic school. The law generally does not authorize the imposition of jail as punishment for violations. Infractions are generally not referred to as “crimes,” since jail is not authorized.

    This page titled 1.6: Classification of Crimes is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Rob Henderson via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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