Today we’ll be discussing felony in criminal law. It’s applications and punishments among various jurisdictions of the world with their histroical evolution in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany etc with its consequencies.

A felony is traditionally considered an offence of high seriousness, whereas a misdemeanor is regarded as less serious. The phrase “felony” originated from Common law (from the French medieval word “felonie”) to describe an offense that resulted in the confiscation of a convicted person’s land and goods, to which additional punishments including capital punishment could be added; other crimes were called misdemeanors. Following conviction of a felony in a court of law, a person may be described as a felon or a convicted felon.

Some common law countries and jurisdictions no longer classify crimes as felonies or misdemeanors and instead use other distinctions, such as by classifying serious crimes as indictable offences and less serious crimes as summary offences.

In the United States, where the felony/misdemeanor distinction is still widely applied, the federal government defines a felony as a crime punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year. If punishable by exactly one year or less, it is classified as a misdemeanor. The classification is based upon a crime’s potential sentence. So a crime remains classified as a felony even if a defendant convicted of a felony receives a sentence of one year or less. Individual states may classify crimes by other factors, such as seriousness or context.

In some civil law jurisdictions, such as Italy and Spain, the term delict is used to describe serious offenses, a category similar to common law felony. In other nations, such as Germany, France, Belgium, and Switzerland, more serious offenses are described as crimes, while misdemeanors or deceits (or delits) are less serious. In still others (such as Brazil and Portugal), crimes and delicts are synonymous (more serious) and are opposed to contraventions (less serious).

However, depending on their nature and circumstances, some offenses may be felonies or misdemeanors. For instances, the illegal manufacture, distribution or possession of controlled substances may be a felony, although possession of small amounts may be only a misdemeanor. Possession of a deadly weapon may be generally legal, but carrying the same weapon into a restricted area such as a school may be viewed as a serious offense, regardless of whether there is intent to use the weapon. additionally, driving under the influence in some US states may be a misdemeanor if a first offense, but a felony on subsequent offenses.

Felony in different jurisdictions

We turn to review the various legislative enactments on felony in different countries of the world.

Sir W. Blackstone wrote that felony “comprises every species of crime, which occasioned at common law the forfeiture of lands or goods”. The word felony was feudal in origin, denoting the value of a man’s entire property: “the consideration for which a man gives up his fief”. Blackstone refutes the misconception that felony simply means an offence punishable by death, by demonstrating that not every felony is capital, and not every capital offence is a felon. However, he concedes that “the idea of felony is indeed so generally connected with that of capital punishment, that we find it hard to separate them; and to this usage the interpretations of the law do now conform.

Felony meaning in UK (England and Wales)

The death penalty for felony could be avoided by pleading benefit of clergy, which gradually evolved to exempt everyone (whether clergy or not) from that punishment for a first offense, except for high treason and offences expressly excluded by statute. During the 19th century criminal reform incrementally reduced the number of capital offences to five, and forfeiture for felony was abolished by the Forfeiture Act 1870.

However, the distinction between felony and misdemeanor became increasingly arbitrary. The surviving difference consisted of different rules of evidence and procedure, and the law commission recommended that felonies be abolished altogether. This was done by the Criminal Law Act 1967, which set the criminal practice for all crimes as that of misdemeanor, and introduced a new system of classifying crimes as either “arrestable” and “non-arrestable” offences (according to which a general power of arrest was available for crimes punishable by five years’ imprisonment or more).

Arrestable offences were abolished in 2006, and today crimes are classified as indictable or summary offences, the only distinction being the mode of trial (by jury in the crown court or summarily in the magistrates’ court, respectively).


The Trials of Felony Act 1836 (6 & 7 Will. 4 c. 144) allowed persons indicted for felonies to be represented by counsel or attorney.


A person being prosecuted for this was called a prisoner, though increasingly “accused” or “defendant” was preferred.


A felony (verbrechen, meaning “crime”) is defined in the strafgesetzbuch (Criminal Code, StGB) as an unlawful act punishable with a minimum of one yeat imprisonment. A misdemeanor (Vergehen) is any other crime punishable by imprisonment with a minimum of less than one year or by fine.

However, in some cases a severe version of a misdemeanor may be punished with imprisonment of more than one year, yet the crime itself remains considered a misdemeanor. The same applies for a milder version of a felony that is punished with imprisonment less than a year.

An attempt to commit a felony is itself a crime, whereas an attempt to commit a misdemeanor is a crime only if specifically prescribed as such by law.


In the law of the Republic of Ireland the distinction between felony and misdemeanor was abolished by section 3 of the Criminal Law Act, 1997, such that the law previously applied to misdemeanors was extended to all offences. Minister Joan burton, introducing the bill in the Seanad, said “The distinction has been eroded over many years and in today’s conditions has no real relevance. Today, for example, serious offences such as fraudulent conversion and obtaining property by false presences are classified as misdemeanors whereas a relatively trivial offence such as stealing a bar of chocolate is a felony.”

However, the 1997 Act, modelled on the English criminal Law, introduced the category of “arrestable offence” for those with penalties of five years’ imprisonment or greater. The 1937 Constitution declares that the parliamentary privilege, which protects oireachtas members from arrest travelling to or from the legislature, does not apply to “treason, felony, and breach of the peace”. The 1996 constitutional Review Group recommended replacing “felony” with “serious criminal offence”.

United States felony history and classification

In the United States,a felony is a crime that is punishable by death or more than one year in prison.

Historcally under the common law, felonies were crimes punishable by either death or forefeiture of property. All felonies remain a serious crime, but concerns of proportionality (i.e., that the punishment fit the crime) have in modern times prompted legislatures to require or permit the imposition of less serious punishments, ranging from lesser terms of imprisonment to the substitution of a jail sentence or even the suspension of all incarceration contingent upon a defendant’s successful completion of probation.

Standards for measurement of an offens’ seriousness include attempts to quantitatively estimate and compare the effects of a crime upon its specific victims or upon society generally. The reform of harsh felony laws that had originated in Great Britain was deemed “one of the first fruits of liberty” after the United States became independent.

Classification of seriousness

In US, all or most felonies are placed into one of various classes according to their seriousness and their potential punishment upon conviction. The number of classifications and the corresponding crimes vary by state and are determined by the legislature. Usually, the legislature also determines the maximum punishment allowable for each felony class; doing so avoids the necessity of defining specific sentences for every possible crime. For example:

  1. Virginia classifies mots felonies by number, ranging from Class 6 (least severe: 1 to 5 years in prison or up to 12 months in jail) through class 2 (20 years to life, e.g., first-degree murder and aggravated malicious wounding) up to Class 1 (life imprisonment). Some felonies remain outside the classification system.
  2. New York State classifies felonies by letter, with some classes divided into sub-classes by Roman numeral; classes range from Class E (encompassing the least severe felonies) through Classes D, C, B, and A-II up to Class A-I (encompassing the most severe).
  3. Massachusetts classifies felony as an offense that carries any prison time.
  4. Ohio classifies felonies by degree ranging from first, second, third, fourth, to fifth degree. First-degree felonies are the most serious categories, while fifth-degree felonies are the least serious. This is broadly the approach taken by the Model Penal Code, although the Code identifies only three degrees of felony.

Some felonies are classified as forcible or violent, typically because they contain some element of force or a threat of force against a person and are subject to additional penalties. Burglary is also classified as a forcible felony in some jurisdictions including Illinois and Florida.

“The common law divided participants in a felony into four basic categories:

  1. first-degree principals, those who actually committed the crime in question;
  2. Second-degree principals, aiders and abettors present at the scene of the crime;
  3. Accessories before the fact, aiders and abettors who helped the principal before the basic criminal event took place; and
  4. Accessories after the fact, persons who helped the principal after the basic criminal event took place.

In the course of the 20th century, however, American jurisdictions elimited the distinction among the first three categories.” Gonzales v. Duenas-Alvarez, 549 U.S.183 (2007).

Consequences of felony

In many parts of the united States, a felon can face long-term legal consequences persisting after the end of their imprisonment. The status and designation as a ‘felon’ is considered permanent, and is not extinguished upon sentence completion even if parole, probation or early release was given. The status can be cleared only by a successful appeal or executive clemency. however, felons may qualify for restoration of some rights after a certain period of time has passed.

The consequences felon face in most states include:

  1. Disenfranchisment: this was expressly permitted by the Fourth Amendment, as noted by the Supreme Court in richardson v. Ramirez.
  2. exclusion from obtaining certain licenses, such as a visa, or professional licenses required to legally operate (making some vocations off-limits to felons).
  3. Ineligibility to hold office in a labor union 9a provision of the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959)
  4. Exclusion from purchase and possession of firearms, ammunition, and body armour
  5. Ineligibility to serve on a jury
  6. Ineligibility for governemnt assistance or welfare
  7. Removal (deportation) if not a citizen

More so, many job applications and rental applications ask about felony history (with the exception of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) and answering dishonestly on them can be a ground for rejecting the application, or termination if the liw is discovered after hire. convicted felons may not be eligible for certain professional licenses or bonds, or may raise the cost of an employer’s insurance.

It is broadly legal to duiscriminate against felons in hiring decisions as well as the decision to rent housing to a person, so felons can face barriers to finding both jobs and housing. Many landlords will not rent to felons, although a blanket ban on renting to felons may violet federal housing law. A common term of parole is to avoid associating with other felons.

In some neighborhoods with high rates of felony conviction, this creates a situation where many felons live with a constant threat of being arrested for violating parole. Banks may refuse to issue loans to felons, and a felony conviction may prevent employment in banking or finance.

In some states, restoration of those rights depends on repayment of various fess associated with the felon’s arrest, processing, and prison stay, such as restitution to victims, or outstanding fines.

Restoration of rights of convicts under felony

The primary means of restoring civil rights that are lost as a result of a felony conviction are executive clemency and expungement.

For convictions under state laws, expungment is determined by the law of the state. Many states do not allow expungement, regardless of the offense, though felons can seek pardons and clemency, potentially including restoration of rights.

Federal law does not have any provisions for convicts of federal felonies in a federal United States district court to apply to have their record expunged. At present the only relief that an individual convicted of a felony in federal court may receive is a presidential pardon, which does not expunge the conviction, but rather grants relief from the civil disabilities that stem from it.


In the law of Cameroon, a felony is a crime for which the maximum sentence is more than 10 years, or death. Felonies are distinguished from misdemeanors (maximum sentence from 10 days to 10years) and offences (not exceeding 10 days). While lesser crimes are tried before a magistrate’s court, felonies must be tried before a high court (tribunal de grande instance).

The drafters of the bilingual Cameroonian penal code of 1967 based their work on French law and Nigerian law. In the case of felonies, they chose to set the threshold for felonies much higher than under either French law (five years) or Nigerian law 9three years). This had the effect of greatly reducing the number of felonies under Cameroonian law. It also reduced the number of crimes that were subject to trial by jury in the courts of east Cameroon at that time.

See also:- Complicity in Crime; Corporate Liability; Accomplice in crime; Mens rea; Concurrence; Causation; Actus reus; Burglary; Child Abuse; Manslaughter; Homicide; Rape

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