In the United States, illegal activities are usually classified as violations, misdemeanors or felonies, based upon the seriousness of the offense. A violation is a minor infraction, such as breaking curfew or disobeying a traffic law. A misdemeanor is more serious than a violation, but not as bad as a felony, and can be punishable with a shorter term of imprisonment. Felonies, the more serious crimes, are divided into different classes by the federal and state court systems. In states which use an alphabetical classification, a Class B felony usually refers to the second most serious category of violent crimes punishable with an extensive period of incarceration.
In most instances, a Class B felony is a serious crime such as sexual assault, manslaughter, robbery, assault and battery, or arson. Defining crimes by category and assigning maximum penalties for each designation is the job of the legislative branch of the individual states. Penalties can include fines, compensation, incarceration and probation.
The severity of the penalties varies greatly between states. In Washington, for example, a Class B felony carries a maximum $20,000 US Dollars (USD) fine and 10 years of incarceration; in Illinois, the maximums for this type of felony are $25,000 USD and 20 years in prison; in Wisconsin the maximum prison term for this level felony can be 60 years. Other states categorize felonies with numeric designations. In those states, a Class 2 felony would be the equivalent of a Class B felony.
The actual sentence for crimes within each category varies depending upon the circumstances. The law may actually specify different sentencing ranges depending upon whether the crime involves assault on a person, dealing in narcotics or is essentially a non-violent crime against property. Some statues also make provision for extending the maximum sentences if certain aggravating circumstances are present. For example, sexual assault against a child may carry a greater sentence than the same offense against an adult. The use of a gun in the commission of the crime or a history of criminal convictions may also result in stiffer penalties.
Since the 1990s, several states have enacted habitual criminal laws, popularly known as “three-strike laws.” Under such provisions, a person who has been convicted of three felonies, even if they are relatively minor in nature, can serve an extended sentence up to life in prison with no parole. While some jurisdictions restrict such a punitive response to only violent crimes like a Class A or Class B felony, states like California have expanded their habitual criminal law to include people convicted of three thefts which exceed a certain monetary value.
At one time, the designation of misdemeanor and felony was generally accepted in common law countries, though most nations outside the USA eventually adopted other classifications. In Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, for example, crimes are classified as summary offenses, indictable offenses, or offenses which may be tried either way. A summary offense is a relatively minor crime for which an indictment and jury trial is not allowed, but is heard by a magistrate. An indictable offense, on the other hand, is a more serious crime and is tried in a crown court pursuant to a formal indictment.