The Law Dictionary

Your Free Online Legal Dictionary • Featuring Black’s Law Dictionary, 2nd Ed.

Will I Go to Jail for a Misdemeanor?

If you've been arrested and charged with a misdemeanor crime, you may be worried about spending a significant amount of time in prison. Chances are good that you've already been exposed to the penal area of the police station that processed you in the aftermath of your arrest. Depending upon the jurisdiction in which you were arrested and the time of day in which the arrest occurred, you may have been jammed into a cramped jail cell or given a semi-private room of your own. If you've already spent time with other accused criminals in a secure environment, you may be dreading the thought of returning to such a place after your conviction.

The rules that govern misdemeanor crimes vary widely by jurisdiction and classification. For starters, there are several different "classes" of misdemeanor crimes. These range from lightly-punished petty misdemeanors to relatively serious Class A misdemeanors. Depending upon the state in which you're arrested, these classes may designated numerically or alphabetically. In either case, they're functionally similar.

If you're charged with a petty misdemeanor, there's virtually no chance that you'll be sent to prison. Most petty misdemeanors are punishable by a relatively small fine of $300 or less. Examples of petty misdemeanors include petty theft and personal possession of certain controlled substances.

If you're charged with a low-level misdemeanor that's deemed to be more serious than a petty misdemeanor, you'll probably face a significant fine and may be required to participate in a community-service program. However, it's unlikely that you'll be incarcerated for such a crime. Low-level misdemeanors include vandalism, disorderly conduct and "disturbing the peace." Meanwhile, more serious misdemeanors like burglary and grand theft might be punishable by some jail time. In most cases, misdemeanor jail sentences can't exceed two years in length.

The likelihood that you'll be incarcerated for a misdemeanor may also depend upon the state of the prison system in your jurisdiction. In many states, municipal and state-run jails are overflowing with inmates. For instance, California's prison population exceeds the rated capacity of its prison system by a factor of two. Given the obvious space constraints that this systemic overcrowding can produce, many judges are inclined to be lenient with repentant offenders. In other words, any prison sentence that you would have received for your crime could be reduced to a "time served" sentence that involves significant amounts of community-service work. If you show remorse for your actions, such an outcome will be more likely.


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

Recent Criminal Law Articles