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Felony is the most serious class of crime identified by the criminal law of the United States. Far more serious than misdemeanors, felony convictions usually carry sentences of over a year in prison, and felons in this country may still be subject to the death penalty. The felony/misdemeanor classification system is descended from English common law, and the United States is the only one of the countries formerly under British rule that still employs this historical distinction.
Common law traditionally distinguished four degrees of felony conviction:
- First-degree principals are those who actually committed the crime.
- Second-degree principals are those who aided or abetted the principal as the felony took place.
- Accessories before the fact are those who aided or abetted the principal before the felony took place.
- Accessories after the fact are those who aided or abetted the principal after the felony took place.
In the early twentieth century the United States eliminated the distinctions between the first three categories.
Statutes and statutory legislation have now significantly altered the way felonies are classified and punished in the United States, and there is a wide variety of theories among the states. Some states classify felonies according to degrees, for example first degree through fourth degree. Other states distinguish felonies by simple ordinal classifications, for example Class A through H, or Class 1 through 8. But no matter how felonies may be classified, diffierent interpretations of mens rea and actus reus, variable opinions about the purposes and possibilities of criminal punishment, and general culture and character of the citizenry all play a very important role in determining the felon's fate, to the point that what is a misdemeanor in one jurisdiction may be considered a serious felony in another.
In addition to the heavy fines and lengthy incarcerations that go along with punishments, felons in the United States are subject to additional penalizations. These may include the loss of voting rights, exclusion from certain lines of work, inability to obtain certain licenses, prohibition from the purchase of guns and ammunition, and exclusion from running for or holding public office. In some states, a felony is considered to be justified grounds for an uncontested divorce. Finally, a non-U.S. citizen convicted of a felony may face deportation.