Federal law and most states adjudicate offenses by type and class. In North Carolina, for example, the State may charge you with a “Class H” felony, or a “Class 3” misdemeanor. These often come with recommended and maximum sentences.
Federal criminal code uses an index of these classes, and each state may ascribe to the federal index or establish its own. North Carolina uses a unique classification for criminal offenses ranging from infractions to Class A felonies.
In North Carolina, as in most states and the US at large, there are three major categories of offenses: Infractions, misdemeanors and felonies.
Infractions are minor violations of regulations such as traffic tickets or fishing in undesignated areas. Infractions typically come with a ticket and a fine, but they rarely include jail time. However, failing to pay fines or continually repeating offenses can increase the severity of consequences.
Misdemeanors are offenses that are more serious than infractions but less so than felonies. They can include jail time, but in North Carolina, the maximum amount of jail time for misdemeanors is 150 days. State legal code categorizes these from least to most severe as Class 3, Class 2, Class 1 and Class A1.
Class 3 misdemeanors include offenses such as failing to return rented property, behaving drunkenly and inappropriately in public or possessing less than a half-ounce of marijuana. Class A1 misdemeanors correlate with many types of assault, including assault with a weapon.
Felonies in North Carolina, as in other states, are the most serious offenses, and they nearly always come with jail time. First-degree murder is a Class A felony with a maximum sentence of the death penalty or life in prison without the chance of parole. Class B felonies relate to more serious rape offenses and second-degree murder, along with other serious charges. On the other end of the felony spectrum, Class I charges correlate to offenses such as credit card theft and some types of forgery. The maximum sentence for Class I felonies in North Carolina is 24 months in jail.
When there is a maximum sentence for your conviction, this does not mean that you will necessarily face a sentence that severe. A judge will determine your sentence based on his or her discretion according to state policy structure. North Carolina uses a complex point system to calculate the number and type of offenses on your record by class, their frequency and a few other factors. Judges can make discretionary decisions on how to interpret and allocate these when delivering your sentence.