Do First-Time Misdemeanor Offenders Go to Jail?

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It may be a surprise, but over 13 million people yearly get a misdemeanor charge for various crimes. In 2020, the number of people under community supervision was roughly 3.8 million. 

Many first-time misdemeanor offenders seek the court’s mercy to get probation instead of incarceration. However, do all first-time misdemeanor offenders go to jail? What are the different types of misdemeanors and their corresponding sentences?

This article tackles the chance of a person who had a first-time misdemeanor offense to avoid going to jail. Also, this piece discusses the different types of misdemeanors and the processes involved in determining the case and sentence of a defendant.

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Do First-Time Misdemeanor Offenders Go to Jail?

The answer to this question depends on the severity of the crime and the type of crime committed. 

There are types of crime that are severe, which may lead to incarceration. However, in most cases, nonviolent misdemeanor cases may be subject to a judge’s lenient discretion. 

The following sections tackle whether misdemeanor offenders always go to jail or not. 

What Is a First-Time Offender?

A first-time offender is someone convicted for the first time with no criminal record

The U.S. criminal justice system tracks the crime history of people sentenced by the courts. These records are filed in a nationwide database, which law enforcement and the public can access. 

There are instances where a first-time case can result in a lenient sentence compared to repeat offenders. However, the court’s consideration depends on the crime’s severity. 

How Can Being a First-Time Offender Impact Your Case?

In some cases, first-time offenders may not face prison or jail time but instead are placed on probation or required to pay financial penalties. 

However, these cases depend on the type of crime committed. There are crimes, especially felonies, that have mandatory sentences which the judge must impose. 

Judges have discretion on what sentence they will impose in cases they handle. However, basic guidelines can determine if a first-time offender should be jailed and for how long

  • Did the offender have a criminal history or the presence of other felonies or misdemeanor offenses on record?
  • How severe was the harm done to the victim?
  • Did the defendant undergo any form of treatment or corrective action plan?
  • Did the defendant show remorse for their actions?
  • What’s the level of threat the defendant brings to public safety?
  • Was the defendant considered a group leader among offenders?
  • Did the defendant victimize vulnerable individuals like children, women, and senior adults?

What Is a Misdemeanor?

A misdemeanor is a criminal offense that’s punishable by up to 12 months of jail time

Compared to felonies, misdemeanors are relatively less severe. Offenders can receive lenient sentences for first offenses because of the nature of misdemeanor cases. 

Examples of crimes often categorized as misdemeanors are the following: 

Can a Drug Crime Be a Misdemeanor?

In some states, drug crimes can be considered as a misdemeanor. For example, in Washington, possessing less than 1oz of marijuana is legal for adults. 

However, possessing more than 1oz but less than 40g of marijuana is considered a simple misdemeanor. The penalty for this crime is a jail sentence of up to one year and fines of up to $1,000. 

What Is Misdemeanor 1 in the U.S.?

Class 1 misdemeanor or first-degree misdemeanor is the most serious misdemeanor category in some states in the United States

For example, in Pennsylvania, the penalty for this misdemeanor type is a maximum sentence of five years and a maximum fine of $25,000. 

Examples of class 1 misdemeanors are the following:

  • Aggressive driving
  • Driving under the influence or DUI
  • Impersonating a public servant
  • Fraudulent credit card use
  • Indecent exposure
  • Shoplifting
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Vandalism
  • Driving without a driver’s license

Additional penalties for class 1 or first-degree misdemeanors are restitution payments, license sanctions, probation, and mandatory counseling. 

Possible Types of Criminal Offenses

Lenient treatment for first-offense cases doesn’t apply to all kinds of crimes. Some crimes are so severe that leniency is not an option for a judge to make. 

The following topics tackle the criminal offenses commonly committed in the United States and categorize them, whether they’re misdemeanors or felonies.

Assault Charges and Domestic Violence

Criminal charges like assault are categorized into simple assault and aggravated assault. In some states, simple assault can be charged with first, second, and third-degree misdemeanors. The penalties for simple assault are imprisonment of 1 to 5 years and fines from $2,000 to $10,000. 

On the other hand, aggravated assault is a felony, and it is a severe crime. A prison sentence for this type of felony assault is usually incarceration of up to 20 years for a first-degree aggravated assault charge conviction. 

White Collar Crimes

Financially-motivated offenses fall under the “white collar” crimes category. These offenses are typically nonviolent compared to other felonies in criminal law. At the same time, white-collar crimes can be a felony or misdemeanors depending on the amount of money. 

For example, in some states, embezzlement of less than $1,000 falls under a misdemeanor case with a maximum penalty of 93 days of jail time and a maximum fine of $500. 

However, if the amount exceeds $1,000, it’s a felony with prison time for up to five years and a maximum fine of $10,000. Aside from being a state violation, white-collar crimes often fall under federal law. 

DUI Charges

Driving under the influence (DUI) charges can incur penalties depending on the state, especially when it comes to dealing with first-time offenders. For example, the severity of the DUI offense depends on the blood alcohol content (BAC).

The blood alcohol content is the alcohol level in your blood after drinking. Law enforcement uses BAC as one factor to determine the severity of a DUI charge. 

Penalties for DUI may include jail time, fines, and driving license suspension. 

Drug Crime Charges

The severity of drug-related crimes depends, in most cases, on the amount and type of controlled substance the offenders possess upon arrest. For example, in Pennsylvania, possession of 30 grams of marijuana carries lesser punishment compared to having one gram of heroin. 

A marijuana possession charge may result in a $500 fine and up to 30 days of jail time. However, a heroin possession charge may result in a $5,000 fine and up to one year of jail time

ARD Program

Pennsylvania offers an Accelerated Rehabilitation Diversion program (ARD) for first-time offenders of nonviolent crimes. The state’s Supreme Court approved this program to save the court from the cost of trial and rehabilitate the offender. 

An offender can participate in the ARD program by submitting a written application to the DA (district attorney) within 30 days of the preliminary hearing. The offender can only participate in the program if the DA approves, even if the individual is qualified. 

Probation as an Alternative to Doing Time in Jail for a Misdemeanor

Probation is an alternative given to first-time offenders of nonviolent misdemeanors. Some states impose probation sentences for offenders that are qualified for such privilege. 

For example, in California law, probation is provided to people convicted of misdemeanor probation, which allows the defendant to maintain their freedom, job, and family connections. 

A person who gets probation is typically a low-risk defendant who agrees to serve probation under court supervision. A defendant can seek this privilege through the help of a criminal defense attorney

What Does It Mean to Be on Probation?

Being on probation means living under constant supervision from a probation officer. Probationers are not free to do anything they want, as specific restrictions are imposed on people under this alternative to jail time

States may have different conditions depending on the crime committed by the defendant. For example, in Philadelphia, a probationer must accept certain conditions if they want to remain out of jail and not get their privilege revoked. Terms include the following:

  • Not possessing any kind of firearm or deadly weapons
  • Not traveling outside a designated location unless given permission by the probation officer
  • Ensuring that they respond promptly to any court summons
  • Submitting to a random drug test
  • Attending life skills training courses and other prescribed treatment programs
  • Promptly notifying a probation officer within 72 hours of an arrest, change of address, or acceptance of new employment

Factors for Obtaining Probation in a U.S. Criminal Case

The courts will consider the following factors when determining if the defendant is worthy of probation.

  • The circumstances surrounding the offense
  • The defendant’s criminal record
  • The defendant’s job status and history
  • The defendant’s family situation
  • The defendant’s willingness to undergo rehabilitation or participation in any alcohol or drug programs
  • The defendant’s willingness to pay restitution
  • The status of the defendant’s victim

Take Probation Seriously

Many see probation as preferable to jail time, but it’s not easy. Probation for misdemeanor charges may last up to five years in some instances. 

The probationer must adhere to all conditions, submit to the probation officer, and agree to a life under constant supervision. Failure to adhere to the requirements can result in probation revocation and jail time

Fines for Misdemeanors

Fines for misdemeanor offenses depend mainly on the state and the classification. Here is a typical suggested list of penalties depending on the misdemeanor class: 

  • Class A or 1: fines of up to $2,000
  • Class B or 2: fines of up to $1,000
  • Class C or 3: fines of up to $500
  • Class D or 4: fines of up to $250

Other Jail Alternatives

Here are other jail alternatives a judge can impose on misdemeanor cases aside from probation or jail time.

  • Supervised community service
  • Drug treatment programs or other similar rehabilitation programs
  • Partial confinement for a misdemeanor

Note that other states may have other jail alternatives for nonviolent misdemeanor offenders.

Restitution for Misdemeanors

Restitution is a court order to compensate the victim for their losses due to the defendant’s criminal action. Every state has laws regarding restitution and the processes for the defendant to pay these fines. 

Many favor the imposition of restitution to force the defendant to answer directly to the consequences of the crimes committed. 

How Misdemeanor Sentencing Works in the U.S.

Misdemeanor cases are initiated in multiple ways. Here is a look into the sentencing process of misdemeanor cases in the United States. The following example comes from the state of Illinois

  • Filing of a complaint: The plaintiff usually does this with the help of a prosecutor.
  • Arraignment: This part of the litigation process is where the defendant is informed of their rights against self-incrimination and future trial dates. Also, the defendant is informed whether they can post bail and how much they must pay.
  • Trial: The trial process is similar to other criminal proceedings. The judge ultimately reviews the evidence presented by the prosecution and defense.
  • Sentencing: The judge reads the sentence and provides the details of the punishment to be imposed.

The Basics of U.S. Sentencing Law

The judge must sentence an offender according to the law. The judge may impose punishments according to the state’s sentencing guidelines or through judicial discretion. 

Furthermore, judges can decide whether to impose jail time, fines, or penalties or place the defendant on probation or other sentencing alternatives. 

What Is the Most Typical Punishment for First-Time Misdemeanor?

Punishment for first-time misdemeanor convictions depends on the severity and type of the offense. 

As discussed above, first-time offenders of nonviolent misdemeanors may be sentenced to probation if they don’t have prior convictions. 

Typical punishments for misdemeanors are jail time of one year and the payment of fines and restitution payments. 

Do Misdemeanors Carry Jail Time?

Misdemeanors can carry jail time, the length of which depends on the type and severity of the crime. Here is an example of jail time guidelines for this type of offense.

  • Class A: This class carries a one-year maximum jail time.
  • Class B: This class carries a six-month maximum jail time.
  • Class C: This class carries a thirty-day jail term.

In some states, misdemeanors are not categorized by class, so sentences are done on a case-to-case basis. 

Maximum and Minimum Sentences for Misdemeanors in the U.S.

In most states, the sentence for misdemeanors in the United States is a maximum of one year to a minimum of 30 days. Most 50 states have sentence guidelines that prescribe this type of sentencing. 

Mandatory Minimum Sentence for Misdemeanors

Some people argue that minimum sentences harm society and the offender because mandatories force defendants, even nonviolent offenders, to be imprisoned. 

The number of prisoners resulting from these mandatories can strain the government’s budget for criminal justice. Thus, states like California have stopped using mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses. 

The types of crimes that no longer require mandatory minimum sentencing in California include gun crimes, fraud, and pornography-related crimes.

When Previous Convictions Turn Misdemeanors Into Felonies

Having a previous record on file is a huge factor that can aggravate a misdemeanor case. Some states impose a harsh penalty for repeat offenders. 

For example, in Pennsylvania, being convicted of a stalking offense will generally result in a first-degree misdemeanor. However, the charge will be a third-degree felony charge if you’ve been convicted before of stalking, other violent crimes, or violating a protective order. 

Collateral Consequences for a First-Time Offender

The collateral consequences of having a criminal conviction include the following:

  • You can get your license to practice a profession like medicine, law, or nursing suspended or revoked.
  • You can experience problems with international travel.
  • Your passport can be put on hold.
  • You can lose the right to possess firearms.
  • You can have difficulty seeing your family members.

Simple Misdemeanor Charges

The penalty for a simple misdemeanor in some states is a maximum sentence of 90 days imprisonment in a city or county jail. Also, the judge can impose a fine of up to $1,000. 

Gross Misdemeanor Charges

A gross misdemeanor is more severe than a simple misdemeanor but not as severe as a felony offense. Some gross misdemeanor cases have minimum mandatory sentences. 

In some states, the maximum penalty for a gross misdemeanor is jail time of up to one year and a fine of up to $5,000. Judges can impose both punishments, especially if the defendant has a prior criminal record

Consequences Later in Life

One major consequence of a misdemeanor conviction is the criminal record that accompanies getting incarcerated. A criminal record doesn’t go away for a long time unless requested and approved for expungement, record erasing, or removal. 

Penalties Vary

Because of the unique situation in America, states may have different penalties for misdemeanors. One state may impose a different punishment compared to an adjacent state. 

Examples of Misdemeanor Crimes in the U.S.

Many crimes fall under the misdemeanor category. For example, here are some crimes with their corresponding misdemeanor classification in Pennsylvania

First-Degree Misdemeanors

  • Involuntary manslaughter
  • Shoplifting of items worth $150 or more
  • Property theft that’s worth between $200 to $2,000

Second-Degree Misdemeanors

  • Simple assault
  • Failure to disperse after being ordered by law enforcement
  • Spreading sexual or nude images without consent (sometimes called revenge porn)

Third-Degree Misdemeanors

  • Cyber harassment of a minor
  • Property theft that’s worth less than $50
  • Disorderly conduct despite receiving warnings

Court Process in the U.S.

Court procedures may differ in different states, but the process hinges on a person’s right to a speedy trial. 

For example, in Pennsylvania, the preliminary arraignment happens within 72 hours of the offender’s arrest. The arraignment may occur within 12 to 16 hours after an arrest. 

Afterward, the judge will decide the hearing date for the trial. The trial length will depend on the severity of the case and the course of action taken by both the prosecution and the defense. 

During the trial, the defendant may take a “not guilty” plea or agree to a plea bargain to reduce the sentence. 

The Federal First Offenders Act May Apply to Your Case

In federal cases, first-time offenders can be eligible for the Federal First Offender Act. This legislation provides first-time offenders the chance to complete a period of probation and allows them to have a charge dismissed instead of getting convicted and getting a criminal record

The Federal First Offender Act helps first-time offenders avoid having criminal records that won’t quickly go away. 

If you’re a first-time offender, you can use the expertise of a criminal defense lawyer to help you out in accessing this privilege. 

How Can You Reduce Your Sentence?

One common way to reduce a sentence, especially if you’re guilty of the misdemeanor, is to accept a plea bargain or to plead guilty and seek the court’s mercy. 

Get Experienced Legal Help

Once you get charged with a misdemeanor, seek legal advice from an experienced criminal defense attorney familiar with your state’s laws. 

Building a defense against a misdemeanor case is not easy to do on your own. It’s best that you get help from law firms to help you out in your case. Some law offices provide free consultations for their clients. 

Look Out for Legal Changes

The state’s legislation may differ significantly if the state decides to change laws to accommodate the growing demands of law enforcement

If you’re in need of a database that provides you access to criminal records, which you can use to gather documents to get probation approved or have your criminal record expunged, visit

Our website provides a comprehensive database that gives access to more than 7,000 prison facilities, including federal and state prisons, in the United States. 


1. Misdemeanor Prosecution and Recidivism
2. Protect Vulnerable Communities
3. Misdemeanor
4. Restitution Law for Victims of Crime
5. What Happens in a Misdemeanor Case
6. Misdemeanor Sentencing Trends
7. The Right to a Speedy Trial in a Criminal Law Case

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