Is First Degree The Worst?

Last Updated on May 11, 2022 by Fair Punishment Team

If you’ve ever read about the passing of a sentence in a news publication or heard it reported in the media, you may already be familiar with the term ‘first degree’ when it comes to classifying criminal offenses. 

‘First degree’ is a legal term used to separate more serious offenses from less serious ones. It can be used to indicate the severity of either a misdemeanor or a felony under U.S. law. 

But is first degree really the worst? In order to put first-degree offenses into context regarding their severity, it’s necessary to compare first-degree felonies and misdemeanors to their second and third-degree counterparts. 

Read on to find out how a first-degree misdemeanor compares with second and third-degree misdemeanors before contrasting first-degree felonies with the lower-degree classifications. 

Is a First Degree Misdemeanor The Worst? 

What Is A Misdemeanor? 

Under U.S. law, a misdemeanor is a crime that is less severe than those constituting a felony, but more serious than a petty misdemeanor or an infraction. 

For reference, an infraction is a crime that is technically a breach of the law, but which does not carry a penalty higher than a monetary fine. 

When charged with a misdemeanor, individuals will not serve more than 12 months (1 year) in prison, compared to the life sentences that can be obtained for felony crimes (more on this later). Other common penalties for misdemeanor offenses include community service, a fine, probation, or restitution. 

The reason why misdemeanors carry lower penalties than felonies is, in part, because the guidelines for sentencing are different. When sentencing an individual with a felony crime, the prosecution is required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted with intent to commit a crime.

Misdemeanor sentencing, on the other hand, typically only requires proof that the defendant acted negligently, carelessly, or dangerously. 

Misdemeanor crimes can range significantly in terms of the type of crime committed and the severity of the crime (the latter of which is often reflected in the degree of the misdemeanor).

In some states, you could be charged with a misdemeanor for petty theft or vandalism, while ‘minor’ sex crimes such as indecent exposure also come under the misdemeanor subheading. 

Bear in mind that not all states use the same terminology to refer to these types of crimes. In New Jersey, for instance, you would hear a misdemeanor referred to instead as a ‘disorderly persons offense’. The legal premise, however, is largely the same. 

What Is A First Degree Misdemeanor? 

Now that we’ve established what a misdemeanor is in more general terms, let’s take a look at what constitutes a first-degree misdemeanor. 

A first-degree misdemeanor is the most serious type of misdemeanor, and therefore, it can be considered the worst kind of misdemeanor. 

First-degree misdemeanors are more severe than summary offenses and also carry more weight than second-degree and third-degree misdemeanors. 

You are most likely to receive the maximum sentence of 1 year’s imprisonment for committing a first-degree misdemeanor. You may also receive a monetary penalty not exceeding $1,000. 

Some examples of crimes that could be classed as first-degree misdemeanors are as follows (in no particular order of seriousness): 

  • Possession of marijuana 
  • Simple battery 
  • Theft of an item/items valued between $100 and $300 
  • Child endangerment 
  • Vandalism 
  • Indecent exposure/assault 
  • Prohibited firearm possession 
  • First counterfeit trademark offense 
  • Threats of terrorism 

As you can see, these offenses are quite variable in terms of behavior and severity, but all could potentially be classed as a first-degree misdemeanor if brought before a court of law in the United States

Is First Degree The Worst

First Degree vs. Second Degree Misdemeanor

Second-degree misdemeanors are crimes that, despite being classified as misdemeanors under the law, are not considered as serious as those outlined under the subheading of a first-degree misdemeanor. 

Compared to a first-degree misdemeanor, for which the usual maximum sentence is a year’s imprisonment and a penalty not exceeding $1,000, a second-degree misdemeanor carries more lenient sentences.

In most cases, the sentence for a second-degree misdemeanor should not exceed 6 months’ imprisonment and the fine should not total more than $500. 

It is more common for people being charged with a second-degree misdemeanor to receive alternative sentences to imprisonment, with probation frequently being awarded instead. 

Crimes that may constitute a second-degree misdemeanor include: 

  • Simple assault 
  • Being drunk and disorderly 
  • Petty theft 
  • Trespassing 
  • Reckless endangerment 
  • Resisting arrest 

It is clear from the list of potential charges and the lower sentencing overall that a second-degree misdemeanor is generally less serious than a first-degree offense. 

First-degree misdemeanors, therefore, are worse than second-degree misdemeanors in terms of the potential loss or danger caused to others as well as the impact of having such a charge on your criminal record. 

First Degree vs. Third Degree Misdemeanor 

What about third-degree misdemeanors? 

In some U.S. states, there is no such thing as a third-degree misdemeanor. In fact, some states do not use a degree classification system for criminal sentencing at all. However, in most states in the U.S., it is possible to be charged with a third-degree misdemeanor. 

A third-degree misdemeanor is less serious than either first-degree or second-degree misdemeanors, although the crimes that constitute third-degree misdemeanors are closer in severity to second-degree offenses than first-degree. 

If you are charged with a third-degree misdemeanor, you will usually not receive any prison time. If jail time is awarded, it should not surpass 6 months. Monetary penalties should not exceed $500. 

Many of the crimes for which an individual could be charged with a third-degree misdemeanor are similar to those listed in the first and second-degree categories but are often committed at a more minor level. For example: 

  • Possession of marijuana for personal use 
  • Shoplifting of low-value items 
  • Writing a bad cheque (value lower than $20)
  • Intoxication in a public setting
  • Possession of drug paraphernalia 
  • Possession of alcohol as a minor 

As you can see, some of these crimes (for example, shoplifting) could also warrant a first-degree or second-degree misdemeanor charge, but because there is less monetary value involved in the crime, the charge is more likely to be classified as a third-degree misdemeanor. 

Out of all the misdemeanor charges, it’s clear that receiving a first-degree misdemeanor is worse than being charged with a second or third-degree misdemeanor. 

With that being said, the complex nature of first-degree sentences doesn’t stop there. In addition to first-degree misdemeanors, there is such a thing as a first-degree felony, which we are going to cover in detail in the following section. 

Is First Degree The Worst

Is A First Degree Felony The Worst? 

What Is A Felony? 

In contrast with a misdemeanor charge, which is a relatively minor breach of the law, a felony is the most serious kind of crime with which you can be charged in the United States. 

A felony is a crime that warrants a minimum of a year’s imprisonment and a maximum sentence of the death penalty. As you can imagine, most of the crimes considered felonies in the United States are very serious and include some of the worst imaginable offenses, including rape and murder. 

Before we move on to discussing the differences between first, second, and third-degree felonies, it’s important to note just how serious a felony charge is.

Not only does a felony charge indicate the commission of a severe criminal act, but a felony is also far more difficult to expunge from your criminal record after the fact. 

Whereas misdemeanor crimes may be able to be expunged after a certain number of years, provided that the defendant has not been charged with any subsequent offenses during this time, not all felonies can be expunged, even after a significant period of time.

This means that a felony is likely to remain on your criminal record for life – and the chances of removing a felony from your record are even lower if you’re charged with a first-degree felony. 

What Is A First Degree Felony? 

A first-degree felony is the most serious type of felony you can be charged with under the U.S. legal system. These first-degree felonies are the severest of crimes. They carry the harshest penalties and are the most difficult to expunge from your criminal record. 

A first-degree felony carries a potential prison sentence of between 3 and 11 years. In states that continue to use the death penalty, first-degree felonies are often the most likely to receive a death sentence. 

With that being said, some states, such as Texas, do not award the death penalty for a first-degree felony, and instead, have a separate class of ‘capital felony’ for which the death sentence is considered appropriate. We will cover the capital felony charge in more detail later. 

First-degree felonies may also be punished through monetary penalties. However, unlike misdemeanors, for which a fine may be imposed instead of a prison sentence, first-degree felonies are more likely to carry a fine as well as a stay in prison.

The typical minimum fine for a first-degree felony is $20,000. 

Crimes for which you can expect to be charged with a first-degree felony include: 

  • Murder 
  • Voluntary manslaughter 
  • Rape 
  • Sexual assault
  • Arson 
  • Kidnapping 
  • Aggravated robbery 
  • Aggravated assault on a member of law enforcement or emergency medical professional

First Degree vs. Second Degree Felony 

A second-degree felony is the second (sometimes third) most serious type of felony you can be charged with in the United States. 

Second-degree felonies are usually punishable by a period of between 2 and 8 years’ imprisonment, sometimes accompanied by a fine of up to $10,000. 

This is still a serious amount of prison time and a significant amount of money, but it’s not as severe a punishment as the potential 11 years and $20,000 a first-degree felony can get you. 

Many of the crimes for which an individual might be charged with a second-degree felony are the same crimes as listed for first-degree felonies, but to a lesser degree of severity.

There are also some second-degree felony crimes that are unique to this category. 

If you commit any of the following crimes in the United States, you could be charged with a second-degree felony: 

  • Drug possession 
  • Aggravated assault
  • Sexual assault 
  • Manslaughter 
  • Arson 
  • False imprisonment (of a child)
  • Burglary 

First Degree vs. Third Degree Felony 

Compared with first and second-degree felonies, third-degree felonies are not as serious. However, third-degree felonies are still more serious than fourth-degree felonies (see below) and misdemeanors. 

A third-degree felony will probably result in some prison time, but this will not be as long as for a second or first-degree felony.

The minimum prison sentence for a third-degree felony is 2 years, with the maximum in most states being 5 years, although some states hand out a maximum of 10 years for these felonies. 

You may also receive a fine for a third-degree felony, not exceeding the sum of $10,000 or $15,000 depending on your state of residence

Crimes that constitute third-degree felonies are: 

  • Transmission of illegal pornography 
  • Assault and battery 
  • Fraud 
  • Arson 
  • Drug possession 
  • Abuse of the elderly 
  • Driving while intoxicated 

As you can see, some of these criminal offenses also feature on the list of offenses warranting first-degree and second-degree felony charges.

However, if these offenses are considered third-degree felonies, it will usually be because of factors including the intent of the defendant and the level of violence involved in the crime. 

Is First Degree The Worst

First Degree vs. Fourth Degree Felony 

The most ‘minor’ type of felony you can be charged with in the United States is the fourth-degree felony. 

Less serious than first, second, and third-degree felonies, fourth-degree felonies are offenses that are too severe to be classed as misdemeanors, but are not considered serious enough for the harsher penalties of, for example, first-degree felonies. 

While the maximum prison time for a first-degree felony is 11 years, for a fourth-degree felony, you usually won’t receive a sentence of longer than 3 years in prison. Fines are also a common punitive measure against fourth-degree felonies. 

Fourth-degree felony crimes include, but are not limited to: 

  • Unlawful sexual conduct 
  • Vehicular homicide 
  • Aggravated stalking 
  • Arson 
  • Extortion 
  • Drug possession 

First Degree vs. Capital Felony 

While a first-degree felony is the worst (most severe) criminal sentence you can get in most U.S. states, there are 5 exceptions: Missouri, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and Tennessee. 

Each of these 5 states still has the death penalty in place, and therefore, residents of these states can be charged with an even more serious offense than a first-class felony. This is called a capital felony. 

A capital felony is a felony charge for which the maximum potential sentence is capital punishment. 

In most cases, capital punishment is reserved for individuals who commit particularly severe and brutal acts of murder. Specific circumstances that can make a murderer eligible for a capital felony charge are as follows: 

  • Victim under the age of 12/14 
  • Victim vulnerable due to old age 
  • Victim vulnerable due to disability 
  • Pregnant victim 
  • Substantial premeditation/planning 
  • Capital felony committed in an especially cold or cruel manner
  • Previous or accompanying felony charges 

These aggravating factors (including specific ages) vary from state to state. 

Final Thoughts 

So, is a first-degree charge the worst you can get in the United States? Surprisingly, not necessarily. 

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between a first-degree misdemeanor and a first-degree felony. While a first-degree misdemeanor is certainly not something you want on your criminal record, you may be able to expunge the record eventually, and you’re unlikely to be punished with more than a year’s imprisonment. 

First-degree felonies, on the other hand, are punishable by up to 11 years in prison and as much as $20,000 in fines. 

Therefore, while a first-degree misdemeanor is the most serious (worst) misdemeanor you can be charged with, it’s not the most serious first-degree offense in the U.S. legal system. 

Moreover, a first-degree felony is not the most severe felony charge you can receive in all U.S. states. While many states in the U.S. do not use capital punishment, those that do have a more serious charge than a first-degree felony in place: the capital felony. 

In Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, Alabama, and Georgia, you can be sentenced to death for certain extreme crimes such as the most brutal murders. If charged with a capital felony in any of these states, an individual can receive a maximum sentence of the death penalty

Therefore, while a first-degree felony is the worst charge you can receive in most U.S. states, 5 states hand out the even more severe charge of a capital felony. 

Remember that lists of potential crimes and maximum sentences provided in this article are guidelines and can vary (sometimes significantly) from state to state.