Skip to content

Criminal Defense

What is the Punishment for a First-Degree Felony?

8 min read
Francesca Toledo, J.D.

by Francesca Toledo, J.D.

When an individual is charged criminally, the criminal charge can be an infraction, a misdemeanor, or a felony. Felonies, particularly first-degree felonies, are among the most serious crimes and come with severe punishment. 

First-degree felony punishments range from $10,000s in fines, up to $100,000 in legal fees, and decades in jail time.

A felony doesn’t need to be a death sentence, even a first-degree felony charge. A lawyer can provide the legal guidance to face a felony charge while helping you get the best possible outcome. 

Connect with a criminal law attorney in your area for a free consultation on your felony case.

What is a Felony?

A felony is a criminal offense defined by criminal statutes. Felony crimes often involve violence with a significant threat to society. Offenders can be charged with a felony under either state or federal law, depending on the type of crime, circumstances, and severity. 

Felony crimes come with more severe punishments, often resulting in prison sentences of at least one year. 

Felony vs. Misdemeanor

Misdemeanors and felonies are different classes of criminal charges. 

Misdemeanors are usually less severe than felonies and carry lighter penalties. Misdemeanor penalties often involve less than a year in jail, fines, probation, community service, or rehabilitation.

Felonies are more serious criminal offenses, and the legal consequences for committing them are more severe than for misdemeanors. 

Some crimes, DUIs, for example, are charged as either misdemeanors or felonies. The circumstances of a crime usually determine how the state charges the offender. Felony DUI occurs when an offender and the results around the arrest show that they are a threat to public safety.

Degrees of Felonies

While some states can include fourth and fifth-degree felonies, there are typically only three degrees of felonies. 

Some states classify felonies using letters, such as Class A for first-degree felonies, Class B for second-degree felonies, and so on. Certain states don’t have degrees at all. 

Every state handles crimes and degrees of felonies differently according to their state’s law. Therefore, it’s best to rely on a local criminal defense attorney to understand your criminal charges better. 

Third-Degree Felonies

Among felonies, third-degree felonies are the least serious. Common third-degree felonies can include:

  • Drug possession
  • Burglary
  • Forgery

The maximum prison time for third-degree felonies is usually ten years. Fines range from $5,000 to $15,000. 

Second-Degree Felonies

Second-degree felonies are more severe than third-degree and carry heavier penalties. Common second-degree felonies can include:

  • Aggravated assault
  • Manslaughter
  • Arson

Prison time for second-degree felonies regularly ranges from 2 to 8 years. Fines are often $15,000 to $20,000. 

First-Degree Felonies

First-degree felonies are the most severe. These crimes can result in extensive prison time, including up to life in prison and fines of $20,000 or more. A first-degree felony can cost up to $100,000 after adding legal fees.

Types of First-Degree Felonies and Punishments

While every state classifies first-degree felonies differently, some common first-degree felonies and penalties are as follows. 


Murder is the most significant first-degree felony.

The general definition of murder is an unlawful killing of another with malice aforethought. There are different types of killings, but murder in the first degree involves a deliberate and premeditated taking of life.

Most states have minimum prison sentences for murder. First-degree murder carries more severe penalties than second-degree murder. Punishment for first-degree murder often involves a life sentence, which may or may not include the possibility of parole. 

Additionally, defendants convicted of first-degree murder may face the death penalty, depending on the severity of their crime and whether the state has a death penalty. 

Drug Felonies

Simple drug possession and distribution are usually misdemeanors depending on the amount in possession and additional arrest circumstances like:

  • Where did it happen?
  • Were children present?
  • Did you commit a crime in addition to the drug charge?

Drug felonies primarily target career criminals and those selling large amounts of drugs for profit, like those in Drug Trafficking, Delivery, or Manufacturing. 

Drug Trafficking

Drug trafficking refers to the transporting, importing, and selling of illegal drugs. Drug trafficking is similar to a drug distribution charge; however, trafficking is on a larger scale. When an offender is charged with drug trafficking, it is because there is a more substantial amount of drugs involved than drug distribution charges. 

Drug trafficking can be both a federal and state-level felony. Charges for drug trafficking depend on the volume of drugs and details of the case. Drugs can include:

  • Cocaine
  • Heroine
  • Methamphetamines

Charges for drug trafficking can also include prescription drugs, such as sleeping pills and painkillers. 

Punishment for drug trafficking rests upon state law and the circumstances of each case but can include 5 to 30 years in prison. 

Manufacture/Delivery of Controlled Substances

Charges for drug manufacturing usually involve a wide range of activities associated with creating drugs or substances used to make drugs. These activities could include everything from mixing chemicals for LSD to cultivating and growing marijuana plants. 

An individual may face drug manufacturing charges even if they’re not actually in the process of making drugs. Sometimes possessing the tools required to make drugs is enough to elicit a drug manufacturing charge.

Offenders charged with manufacturing are often charged with delivery as well. The two in combination can mean more severe penalties. 

Drug manufacturing charges can be either second or third-degree felonies, and depending on the situation, they may also be first-degree. For example, if an offender manufactures drugs or delivers them near schools, they will likely face enhanced punishment.

First-degree drug manufacturing charges can result in up to 30 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000 in some states. 

Aggravated Assault

Assault is generally defined as the intentional act of causing another person fear of imminent harm. 

There is a legal difference between simple assault and aggravated assault. Simple assault is usually charged as a misdemeanor, while aggravated assault is a felony. Aggravated assault involves putting someone in fear of danger while using a weapon or intending to commit a serious crime, like rape. 

Punishment for aggravated assault can result in prison time between 10 and 20 years and fines of up to $20,000. 

Aggravated Battery on a Law Enforcement Officer

Law enforcement officers are highly respected and protected. Therefore, if an individual is charged with aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer, it is usually a first-degree felony.

Battery involves intentionally causing harmful or offensive contact with an individual. Aggravated battery means harming another person with any weapon, including a gun, knife, or other objects that could cause injury. 

A person could be charged with this category of crimes if they harm any first responders, including firefighters and emergency medical care providers.

Punishment for aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer can include prison time for up to 30 years and fines of $10,000, depending on the details of the incident. 


Arson is generally defined as the intentional or malicious act of setting fire to another individual’s property. A person may be charged with arson for burning their personal property.

Arson can be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the event’s severity. 

A first-degree arson felony is when an offender sets fire to the property with the intent to cause significant harm or damage, and the arson results in bodily injury or death.

Additionally, if the location where the arson occurred is a place of worship, a government building, or a place of human habitation, such as an apartment complex, it may be charged as a first-degree felony.

First-degree arson can result in up to 30 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. 


Rape involves non-consensual sexual acts, usually committed by using threats or physical force. The crime consists of any type of sexual contact, however slight. 

Convicted rapists must register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives, making it extremely important to create the best defense possible when facing a rape charge.

First-Degree Rape

Rape is often a first-degree felony when it includes using a deadly weapon, infliction of severe bodily injury, kidnapping, or causing a profound effect on a victim. 

Penalties for first-degree rape depend on the details of the case and the victim’s age but could result in an extensive prison sentence or even life in prison.

Don’t Handle Your Case without a Criminal Defense Attorney

First-degree felonies can steal decades of your life. You should always take felony charges seriously, and therefore, you should never handle such a criminal case alone. A criminal defense attorney will help you understand things like what happens when you plead guilty in court.

A criminal lawyer has the knowledge and experience to help get you the most favorable outcome. They can help you understand the charges against you and create a feasible defense strategy based on your situation.

You can rely on a criminal defense attorney to do all of the following:

  • Investigate your case
  • Gather helpful evidence
  • Interview witnesses
  • Handle your defense
  • Represent your best interests

If you’re facing felony charges, consult a criminal defense lawyer to begin working on your defense as soon as possible. 

Traditional criminal lawyers can take between $3,000 and $5,000 to start on a small case. However, Unbundled Legal Help specializes in affordable representation and realistic payment options. The attorneys in our network generally start a case for $1,500 to $2,500 and up.

If you’re hiring a lawyer, we can connect you with a free criminal defense consultation today.

Related Blog Posts

Ready to Talk to a Lawyer?

Receive a free consultation with a more affordable lawyer in your local area