What are the different classes of felonies? Do these vary by state? Which ones are the worst? How do I know which class of felony I've been charged with?
Vary by state
While most felonies involve serious crimes that carry a likely risk of incarceration, every state's laws classify the different types of felonies in some manner. Most commonly, state laws categorize felonies according to the severity of the crime and the potential punishment for that crime. In some states, each class of felony is assigned a number, with a Class 1 felony being the most serious crime, and a higher number class being the least serious crime.
Likewise, some states use a letter system to designate different classes of felonies. In those states, for example, you might find that a Class A felony is the most serious class of felony, whereas a Class D felony or a Class I felony is the least serious class of felony, depending on the number of felony categories or classes. Furthermore, some states recently have moved away from a system of dividing crimes into different categories of felonies and misdemeanors altogether. As a result, the classification of a certain felony can differ markedly from state to state.
Felonies by type
The types of crimes that fall within each class of felony also vary from state to state. Typically, the most serious or violent crimes with the potentially lengthiest sentences, such as murder and kidnapping, are categorized in the highest class of felonies for a particular state, such as a Class 1 or Class A felony. Nonetheless, there are some non-violent felonies, such as certain drug crimes, that may fall into this highest category of felonies, as well. Similarly, less serious crimes that still constitute felonies, such as theft or possession of a controlled substance, are classified as lower classes of felonies.
Beyond these generalities, however, some states classify and punish certain types of felonies differently than other states. For example, in states with "three strikes" criminal laws, which can result in very serious criminal charges and penalties if you commit your third felony crime, a crime that might be a lower class of felony in another state would belong to a much higher class of felony in these states under these circumstances.
How do you know what you've been charged with
If you have been charged with a felony, you should be sure and find out the class of felony with which you are charged. The class of felony will determine the minimum and maximum penalty and sentence that you face if you are convicted of that felony charge. Whenever you are charged with a crime, you must receive a copy of the charging document, or the document that sets out in detail the crime with which you are charged, as well as the statute or law that you are accused of violating; a charging document, depending on the state, may be referred to as a complaint, an information, or an indictment, among other terms.
At your initial hearing, or arraignment, it is likely that the court will read the charging document to you, as well, so that you are properly advised of your rights under the Constitution. By examining the document that charges you with a crime, and listening to the judge's description of the charges against you at the initial hearing, you should be able to determine with which class of felony you have charged.