Generally, a minor misdemeanor is considered to be any infraction punishable by less than one year in jail. While some countries have erased the line between felony and minor misdemeanor, the United States (US) still makes the distinction. Jail time for a this type of crime is typically served in the county or city jail rather than a state penitentiary. Judges also can use creative sentencing options for a minor misdemeanor, such as weekends in jail, probation, fines, or community service time.
Minor misdemeanor offenses include drug possession, petty theft, prostitution, simple assault, reckless driving, vandalism, or trespass. Unlike felonies, misdemeanor convictions do not bring a loss of civil rights, such as the right to vote. Minor misdemeanors do, however, bring collateral consequences, such as the loss of a commercial license or loss of public office. Penalties vary widely from one jurisdiction to another.
The state of Virginia, for instance, breaks misdemeanors down into Class 1 and Class 2, which are punishable by six months or a year in jail, respectively. Virginia's Class 3 and Class 4 misdemeanors are non-jail offenses that are punishable by fines. Many states also have unclassified misdemeanors on their law books with their own schedule of jail time, probation, or fines available to the sentencing judge. US federal law also makes the distinction between felony and misdemeanor, with federal misdemeanors broken down as infractions, class A, class B, or class C, all of which have their own maximums for fines and jail time.
In contrast, felonies are serious crimes, such as burglary, assault and battery, arson, rape, grand theft, or vandalism on federal property. The punishments for felonies generally are much harsher and the felon's collateral consequences can include a prohibition against owning firearms, the loss of voting rights, denial of certain licenses, and the loss of competence to sit on a jury. In some states, a felony conviction is even grounds for an uncontested divorce.
Other countries, such as Australia and Canada, have redefined misdemeanors and felonies as "summary offenses" and "indictable offenses." The basic framework for defining the crimes and meting out punishment, however, is still fairly similar. For instance, Canada limits jail time for summary offenses to a maximum of six months. Also, summary offenses have a statute of limitations and can proceed without an arrest warrant; indictable offenses have no statute of limitations and involve an arrest warrant signed by a judge.