In general a felony is a much more serious charge (and subsequent
conviction) than a misdemeanor. Felonies typically carry punishments
of at least one year in prison and up to (and including) the death
penalty in some states. In practice felons often spend less than a
year in jail; it is not unheard of for a felon to either have a
suspended prison sentence or be offered rehab instead of
Classifications of Misdemeanor and Felonies
Classifications for misdemeanors and felonies vary by state. Misdemeanors are often referred to as classes. Most states that use classes designate Class A misdemeanors as the most serious with Class B, C, D or E as less serious offenses with lower maximum punishments. Other states, such as California, make no distinction between misdemeanor classes.
Felony classifications follow a similar classification system in most states. These are often letters, with A being the most serious, or a number system with a First Class Felony being the most serious. California is once again non-traditional in this regard; California designates crimes by categories, which include White Collar, Drug, Sex, Violent and Serious Felonies.
More Serious Consequences for Felonies
Not only are the legal ramifications greater for felonies (longer incarceration, longer probation/parole, larger fines, etc.), but felons lose a lot of other privileges that misdemeanants don't. Each state has its own limitation on felons. In many places felons cannot vote (commonly referred to as felony disenfranchisement), own guns or ammunition, serve on a jury or be eligible for government assistance.
Most felons report that the worst consequence of their convictions is the ability to find gainful employment. For the most part working for large companies is out of the question because they perform extensive background checks prior to making a hiring decision. The ease of finding criminal information online, however, is leading to more small companies running background checks. With bleak job prospects and no government assistance (including in many areas no access to public housing projects), the financial outlook for a felon is usually not good. The banks realize this and usually deny felons access to credit; in some cases felons are denied even basic services such as the ability to setup checking or savings accounts.
There are some obvious reasons for allowing employers to discriminate against felons; a sexual offender should not be working in a day care. Often, however, the felony is completely unrelated to the position applied for. It could be the result of a rebellious childhood episode, or in some cases, a wrongful conviction. If a felon (who happens to live in a state that permits felony expungement,) has committed one of a narrowly defined set of offenses that is expungable and does not have any other charges (misdemeanor or felony), they have a chance for a fresh start.
If not, they are essentially serving a life sentence.
Charged with a Felony, Convicted of a Misdemeanor
It is possible that somebody who is charged with a felony is ultimately convicted of a misdemeanor. This usually happens when a plea deal is reached between the prosecution and defense.
"Overcharging" is the practice of charging somebody with more charges than a prosecutor ultimately thinks they will be convicted of. This gives the prosecution leverage in negotiating a plea bargain, which allows the prosecutor to avoid an expensive trial. A savvy attorney should be able to advise his or her client on when the prosecutor might be flexible on dropping felony charges to a misdemeanor.
Reducing a Felony Conviction to a Misdemeanor
Even if you have been convicted of a felony, in some cases you can later have the felony reduced to a misdemeanor charge. In California you must have been charged with a "wobbler," or a crime that can be charged either as a felony or a misdemeanor. You must have successfully completed all court ordered requirements including incarceration, probation or parole, applicable fines, etc.
It is important to have the best attorney that you can afford every step of the way. If you have just been charged, for instance, a good attorney can help you figure out whether the charges will be eligible for a reduction to misdemeanor.
Expungement Might be an Option
If you or somebody you know has been charged with a misdemeanor or felony, it is important to know the difference between two. In some states, for instance, misdemeanors can be expunged (erased) and felonies may not. Other states may allow felonies and misdemeanors to be expunged as long as they do not involve violence or sex crimes.
Doing research online is a great way to get started but you should always discuss the specific details of your case with an attorney who understands state and local laws in your area.