Many people believe the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor is merely a matter of seriousness — major crimes like armed robbery are felonies, and smaller crimes such as petty theft are misdemeanors. While that’s generally true, the reality is a bit more complicated. The primary difference between the two is the severity of the crime and the potential sentence. Crimes punishable by less than one year in prison are typically classified as misdemeanors. Crimes which allow for incarceration of more than one year are generally classified as felonies. But some crimes fall somewhere between the two classifications, allowing prosecutors to exercise discretion as to whether felony or misdemeanor charges are issued. Aggravating circumstances can also lead to misdemeanors being upgraded to felonies, or felonies being lowered to misdemeanors.

Fines also vary widely between misdemeanors and felonies. Typically, those convicted of a misdemeanor aren’t fined more than $1,000. Felony convictions may result in stiffer fines. Those convicted of a felony may also lose certain privileges, such as the right to vote or the right to own firearms.

Laws vary widely from state to state, so what’s classified as a felony in one area may be a misdemeanor in another, and vice versa. The place of incarceration is another difference between the two classifications. Defendants who must serve time as a result of a felony are typically sent to prison, while misdemeanor sentences are generally served in a jail.