Definition: Charge: “An accusation of crime, formulated in a written complaint, information, or indictment, and taking shape in a prosecution.” (thelawdictionary.org)
Although federal law lays some of the groundwork for criminal law, states typically carry the most jurisdiction over criminal issues and therefore the law related to crimes.Typically, in federal and state US law, degrees of charges are associated with felony crimes, which are determined to be more serious by the state and often involve some aspect of violence. Felonies carry sentences of incarceration in prison instead of a local jail like a misdemeanor would and the felony length of incarceration is generally longer. Types of felonies can be classified according to different degrees depending upon the perceived severity of the character of the crime committed on a scale from first-degree to fourth-degree, though the classifications and existence of these degrees varies from state to state. A general list by legaldictionary.net is as follows:
“First-degree felony: murder, rape, kidnapping, arson, fraud
Second-degree felony: aggravated assault, felony assault, arson, manslaughter, possession of a controlled substance, child molestation
Third-degree felony: assault and battery, elder abuse, transmission of pornography, driving under the influence, fraud, arson
Fourth-degree felony: involuntary manslaughter, burglary, larceny, resisting arrest” (legaldictionary.net)
Classifications and degrees of felonies typically allow for legislators to lump crimes together according to their perceived severity. This benefits the state by allowing for legislators to create maximum sentences according to the classification or degree, efficiently eliminating the necessity for sentencing to be tailored around each individual felonious crime.
History:The earliest history of a parallel legal structure similar to that of the American felony can be found in English common law circa the 14thcentury.A felony crime was among some of the first to be written into English penal codes, typically being defined by their severity. A felony charge would often result in forfeiture of all assets and/or the death penalty (Blackstone). Post American independence, reform of harsh English felony laws occurred (Chaplain). In a modern context, the standard three-degree felony system thought of by many Americans and commonly used by many states is drawn from the Model Penal Code- a 1962 project of the American Law Institute to hopefully aid U.S. legislatures in updating and standardizing their own penal law codes. The Model Penal Code examines the pre-existing laws and codes across the United States and synthesizes them to create cohesive and effective rules for a penal system in the U.S that could be implemented in any jurisdiction. (American Law Institute).Over time the American felony has developed its own identity outside of its English parenthood.
Although the exact legalities surrounding a felony charge have varied over time, the general implications of the felony charge have stayed the same:it is a classification of the most severe of crimes often deserving of a more serious punishment.In fact, first felony charges were described as being mens reacrimes or crimes of a “guilty mind” (criminal.laws.com).This conceptualization of what describes a felony has continued into modern thought.
State to State comparison and implementation:
Notably, the states have a vast amount of discretion and responsibility within the criminal law within their state- which has led to extreme inconsistencies from state to state, not only in the handling of crime but also in the degrees that felonies are classified to.Depending upon the state, felonies may be classified in other systems, an aspect which greatly complicates the criminal system and leads to a lack of consistency from state to state.For example, New York State classifies the degrees of felonies by letter A-E (with A being the most severe of felonies and E being the least severe) with sub-classifications of Roman Numerals. A-I would be the most severe class of felony in the state of New York. Virginia, on the other hand, classifies felonies on a numerical scale from Class 1 to Class 6. A Class 1 felony in Virginia would only be a very severe murder carrying the sentence of life imprisonment or the death penalty. Also, in Virginia, not all felonies carry a numerical classification. (criminaldefenselawyer.com). These classifications are applied to lump groups of different felony crimes usually for sentencing means to establish mandatory minimums based on classification (SEE sentencing section for info on mandatory minimums) and are not used in degrees of individual crimes like what will be discussed below.
In order to best examine the implementation of the degrees of a felony charge in a real-world scenario and to view the varied handlings of the state in these matters by comparing one of the most infamous crimes: murder.
Murder is most commonly broken down into the following degrees:
- First-degree murder is defined as being intentional and premeditated with malice aforethought- a unique element to first-degree murder or aggravated murder. Felony murder, which typically applies to a murder which occurs as a part of another dangerous crime- like kidnapping- regardless of the offender’s intent to kill, also falls into the first-degree category.
- Second-degree murder is defined as any intentional and malicious murder that lacks premeditation. Second-degree murder is often thought of as a spur-of-the-moment choice, like a bar fight that ended in death.
- Some states, like Pennsylvania, continue with a third-degree murder charge which can serve as a catch-all for killings which do not fall into the realm of other classifications. Third-degree murder typically contains malice but no intent. (criminal-law.freeadvice.com)
Although on paper these outlines seem fairly straightforward with little grey area, however the ambiguity of law has caused countless situations that allow for more indirect cases of murder to be upgraded to a higher degree charge.
A first-degree murder charge can result from a range of levels of involvement in the act of the crime- including if the offender only played an auxiliary role in the circumstances in which the crime was committed.For example, Pennsylvania’s statute states that “a criminal homicide constitutes murder of the second degree when it is committed while defendant was engaged as a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony.”This allows for non-killers to be convicted of first-degree murder in an attempt to create a deterrent effect of the law as in theory, potential criminals would be dissuaded from committing felonious crimes that could potentially result in a death.In the case of Blake Layman, a 16-year-old boy and his group of friends broke into a house with the intention to rob it. Layman had a clean criminal record and had never held a gun. The group of boys were all unarmed. While in the act of burglary, the homeowner opened fire upon the group of boys, ultimately killing one of Layman’s friends. Layman had never fired a single shot, yet he was charged with felony murder and sentenced to 55 years in prison.The ambiguity of the felony murder statute in Layman’s home of Indiana is especially nuanced and contributed to the complications of the case; it reads: “a person who kills another human being while committing or attempting to commit … burglary … commits murder, a felony.” (Pilkington) In some states, these crimes are commonly called felony murder (criminal-law.freeadvice.com).They typically will carry the same sentences and punishments as if the individual had killed the victim themselves.As many offenders though are unaware of the existence of felony murder rule, it often only complicates the situation for many incarcerated individuals. In such a scenario, a felony murder conviction will commonly breed sentiments of being wrongfully convicted.
However, while many states maintain the charge of felony murder as a subcategory of a first-degree murder conviction, some state law is moving away from this practice as the felony murder rule punishes people for a crime they did not commit.In comparison, in the state of California (and Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Michigan), felony murder has been abolished from courts as a degree of murder. In the case of Neko Wilson of California, Wilson waited in the car during a robbery which resulted in the murder of two. Wilson initially faced the death penalty in 2009 in connection to the murders, but the updated California law freed him in October of 2018 (Vansickle).This shows a comparison of the implementation of differing degrees of one felony, murder, in different states.The elimination of the felony murder rule from some state’s criminal law codes just further shows the amount of jurisdiction that states execute over the realm of criminal law.
Long-term implications of a felony charge:
Fundamental to the concept of charges is the discretion not only of the state to set their own guidelines, but as mentioned in the LSJ 200 lecture, the individual prosecutor wields the most discretion in the choice of what individual charge to give to an individual.This amount of discretion has led to a rise in inconsistencies in charges.Two individuals who committed the same crime and are from the same demographic background (race, socioeconomic status and criminal history) typically will not get the same sentence due to the prosecutor giving out differing charges as different charges will carry different lengths of incarceration.Giving the prosecutor such a heightened level of discretion can reveal bias as they alone can determine the severity of the crime and the degree deserved. The prosecutor’s bias can in part be caused by political pressure generated from their desire for re-election and to keep the voting public happy.This can lead increased targeting of minorities in order to create a scapegoat population that will ease the anxieties of the dominant social group.(Herbert)
Certain felony charges seem to be disproportionately served to minority groups.For example, the aforementioned felony murder charge was found in California to disproportionately affect women and young Latino and black men (Vansickle).An overall increase of first-degree or second-degree charges has caused an increase in life sentences (life with parole, life without parole or virtual life sentences of 50 years or more) in prisons.According to the research of Ashley Nellis on behalf of the Sentencing Project, “Thirty-eight percent of people serving life or virtual life sentences have been convicted of first-degree murder and an additional 20.5 percent have been convicted of second degree, third degree or some other type of murder. Approximately one third of people serving life or virtual life sentences have been convicted of other violent crimes that include rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, or kidnapping.” A large contribution to the increase of life sentences in prisons is due to the war on drugs which has caused a sharp increase in non-violent felony charges. Note that these nonviolent drug-related charges typically fall into the categorization of a second-degree felony. Felony drug charges have become so common that “one in 12, or 17,120 prisoners serving life or virtual life, has been convicted of a nonviolent crime,”whichoften these nonviolent crimes are drug charges, though they could also include nonviolent sex-offender crimes like transmission of pornography.Although this trend can be seen in many states across the country, certain states have staggering numbers of their prison populations serving life sentences for nonviolent felony crimes. “In Nevada and Delaware nearly one-third (32.8% and 31.9% respectively) were convicted of a nonviolent crime. In Oklahoma, one in six people serving life or de facto life has been convicted of a nonviolent crime; in Alabama, it is one in seven and in New York one in nine” (Ashley Nellis).Another contributing factor to the staggering increase in felony convictions with life sentences is the trend of juveniles being tried as adults since the mid-1990s (Kupchick).Similar to adult courts, juveniles tried in adult criminal courts with felony charges are disproportionately of a minority group. 62% of juvenile defendants were black in comparison to only 20% of defendants who were white. Juveniles(those under the age of legal adulthood which is 17/18 depending upon the state)are 64% more likely than adults to be tried with a violent felony (Bureau of Justice Statistics).This uptick in charges of violent crimes and drug-related nonviolent felonies will lead to an increased population of disenfranchised minority groups who have lost abilities that connect them with society. Felony convictions carry heavy long-term consequences post-incarceration, including- but not limited to: losing the power to vote, the right to possess firearms, and the ability to hold certain jobs, positions, certifications or registrations (i.e., working inside of a school, law enforcement, or credentials required for occupations in real estate).As a result, felony charges can societally be seen to unfairly target juveniles and minorities, commonly for nonviolent crimes which land them with life sentences, and those who are released from incarceration will face a brunt of societal consequences for their lifetime even after their time has been served.
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VanSickle, Abbie. “He Spent 9 Years in Jail Awaiting Trial. Now He’s Going Free.” The Marshall Project, The Marshall Project, 19 Oct. 2018, http://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/10/18/a-decade-awaiting-trial-now-freed.