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Types of criminal law — Legal glossary

Sneha Solanki  

· 7 minute read

Sneha Solanki  

· 7 minute read

Definition of various types of criminal law, related terms, and research resources for legal professionals

Legal termscriminal law types of criminal law


Criminal law is a cornerstone of any legal system, defining penal actions and prescribing penalties for violating them. The study of criminology revolves around understanding criminal liability and the categories of criminal offenses recognized by legal systems.

The criminal justice system classifies offenses into various types in the United States, each with its characteristics, penalties, and legal implications.

Jump to:

Felony offenses

Misdemeanor offenses

Minor crimes (infractions)

Other offenses

Summary and other resources


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Felony offenses

Felonies are the most severe category of criminal offenses in the United States. A conviction for a felony typically carries a prison sentence of more than one year.

These offenses encompass grave violations of the law, including:

Murder and Manslaughter

Taking another person’s life intentionally or through reckless behavior is among the most severe crimes. Murder is often classified into degrees, with first-degree murder being premeditated and carrying the harshest penalties.


The act of forcefully taking property or valuables from another person, often involving violence or threats.


The deliberate act of setting fire to property poses a substantial risk to life and property.


The unlawful abduction and restraint of an individual, often with the intent of extortion, harm, or other criminal purposes.

Drug trafficking

The illegal distribution and sale of controlled substances, such as narcotics or illicit drugs.


Engaging in deceptive practices to obtain financial gain, including white-collar crimes like embezzlement and securities fraud.

Felony convictions result in significant penalties, including lengthy prison sentences and substantial fines. The severity of these offenses reflects the gravity of the harm they cause to individuals and society.

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Misdemeanor offenses

Misdemeanors are less severe than felonies but more significant than minor infractions. Misdemeanor penalties may include fines, probation, community service, and incarceration for up to one year. Examples of misdemeanor offenses include:


Physical attacks that result in minor injuries or threats of harm.

Petty theft

Stealing property or goods of relatively low value.


Unlawfully entering or remaining on another person’s property without permission.

DUI (driving under the influence)

Operating a vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs, posing a risk to public safety.

Minor crimes (infractions)

Minor crimes, often infractions or ordinance violations, are less serious. These transgressions are typically penalized with monetary fines rather than incarceration. Common examples include:

Traffic violations

Speeding, running a red light, or failing to yield the right of way.


Disposing of trash improperly, defacing public property, or littering in public spaces.

Public nuisance

Activities that disrupt public peace and order, such as excessive noise or disorderly conduct.

Petty drug possession

Possessing a small quantity of controlled substances for personal use.

Infractions are minor offenses that do not carry the same weight as misdemeanors or felonies. Nevertheless, they contribute to maintaining public order and compliance with legal norms.

Other offenses


Drug-related offenses

Drug-related offenses encompass a broad spectrum of criminal activity, depending on the type and quantity of drugs involved. These offenses range from minor drug possession to large-scale drug trafficking operations. Penalties for drug-related crimes vary significantly based on drug classification, quantity, and intent.

Sexual crimes

Sexual crimes cover a range of offenses related to sexual exploitation, misconduct, and abuse. Such crimes are particularly heinous due to the severe physical and emotional harm inflicted on victims.

  • Rape and sexual assault: Non-consensual sexual acts that result in physical or psychological harm to the victim
  • Child molestation: Sexual abuse or exploitation of minors
  • Child pornography: The creation, distribution, or possession of sexually explicit material involving minors
  • Prostitution: Engaging in sexual activities for monetary gain, where prostitution is illegal

Domestic violence

Domestic violence refers to abusive behavior within the context of a domestic or family relationship. This abuse can manifest as physical, emotional, or sexual violence. Laws addressing domestic violence aim to protect vulnerable individuals from harm within their homes.

Inchoate crimes

Inchoate crimes are offenses initiated but not completed, involving acts that assist in committing another crime. These crimes go beyond mere intention and require the individual to take a “substantial step” toward completing the crime to be found guilty. The three main categories of inchoate crimes are:

Aiding and abetting involves knowingly assisting or encouraging someone to commit a crime. This can include providing tools, information, or support to aid in the commission of the offense. Those who aid and abet can be held criminally liable alongside the principal offender.

Attempted crimes occur when an individual takes a substantial step toward committing a specific crime but does not complete it. The key is that they must have intended to commit the crime and taken concrete actions to carry it out.

Conspiracy is an agreement between two or more individuals to commit a crime. Unlike aiding, abetting, and attempting, conspiracy doesn’t require taking a substantial step toward committing the crime. The mere agreement to commit the offense is sufficient. Conspirators can be charged and punished even if the planned crime was never carried out.

The severity of punishment for inchoate crimes can vary. the criminal law precedents also play a major role in establishing the punishment such as in some cases the punishment may be equivalent to what the completed crime would entail, while in others, it may be less severe.

Summary and other resources 

Criminal law in the United States encompasses various offenses, each with its characteristics and penalties.

  • Felonies are the most serious, carrying substantial criminal law sentences, while misdemeanors result in less severe penalties.
  • Minor crimes, often called infractions, are typically penalized with fines.
  • Other offenses include drug-related offenses, sexual crimes, domestic violence, and inchoate crimes like aiding and abetting, attempt, and conspiracy.

Criminal law statutes, criminal law defense, Actus Reus, Mens Rea, the criminal-instrumentality rule, criminal procedure law, criminal policy, elements of crime, concurrence, causation, and criminology are all important concepts that contribute to our understanding of the various types of criminal law and their role in the broader field of criminology.


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