A person with no experience in the criminal justice system will see that the courts make a distinction between felony and misdemeanor cases. In almost every courthouse in Illinois, felony cases are heard by a judge who hears only felony matters. The judge presiding over felony cases is usually a Circuit Judge. These judges are elected and considered to be senior to Associate Circuit Judges.
The law in Illinois says that a felony offense as a penalty of one year or more incarceration. By contrast, a misdemeanor offense has a potential penalty of less than one year imprisonment.
The most important difference between felonies and misdemeanors, in my opinion, concerns the minimum sentence available. On misdemeanor charges, the judge is permitted under the law to sentence the offender to supervision.
Supervision is a special type of probation. Court supervision is not a conviction. Instead, supervision is like a deferred prosecution. The defendant pleas guilty, and the court sentences him. However, the court defers entering a judgment against him. The case is continued for a period of time in which the defendant must not violate the law. If the defendant complies, the charge or charges are dismissed. The record of court supervision can be expunged. Additionally, the defendant can truthfully say during supervision that he has not been convicted of a crime.
On a felony, the minimum sentence is a conviction. It is a permanent criminal record that can never be expunged. What is more, a felony conviction generally cannot be sealed, either.
There is no supervision for felony charges. As a result, even a first offense will result in permanent record. A person with no criminal background charged with a misdemeanor may have a chance of getting out of case without a record. A person with no criminal history who is charged with felony however, if found guilty of charge, cannot escape a conviction.
This is one of the reasons that felony courtrooms seem to operate so differently.
There are some offenses on the books in Illinois that, even though they are felonies, they allow the defendant to avoid a conviction.
For example, possession of cannabis with intent to deliver is a felony offense. See 720 ILCS 550/5. This offense is referred to as possession with intent, and it is a Class 3 felony. The sentencing range for this offense is 2-5 years in the Department of Corrections.
Possession of a controlled substance is also a Class 4 felony. See 720 ILCS 570/402. The penalties include 1-3 years prison.
A person who is charged with any of these felonies may be eligible for what is, in effect, court supervision. The Illinois lawmakers got it right with the statutes concerning substance abuse. Our lawmakers recognized that addiction requires special treatment.
Felony cannabis and controlled substance cases can result in what is called Section 10/410 probation. For cannabis cases, it is 550/10 probation, while controlled substances have 570/410 probation.
This type of probation is analogous to supervision in that it results in a deferred judgment. The court does not enter a judgment against the defendant. As long as the defendant does not violate the law and abides by the rules and regulations of probation, the court will dismiss the charge against him.
There are additional offenses that the Illinois General Assembly should consider for a special type of probation such Section 10/410 probation. For instance, writing a bad check is a felony offense depending on the value of the check. See 720 ILCS 5/17-3 (forgery); and 720 ILCS 5/17-1 (deceptive practices).
While some counties have a bad check diversion program, such as Cook County, most do not. This means that someone with no criminal record whatsoever who writes a bad check ends up with a felony conviction.
Using a credit or debit card that belongs to another person will also result in felony offense. See 720 ILCS 5/17-35. For example, unlawful use of a credit card (UUCC) is a Class 4 felony.
Consider a situation in which a person uses a credit or debit card belonging to someone else to make a small purchase. If a person uses that card to purchase an item for exactly $0.01, it is a felony.
Compare what happens if the same person steals exactly $0.01. That is a misdemeanor charge. And more importantly, there is probably no police officer in the state of Illinois interested in arresting someone for stealing $0.01. But according to the law in Illinois, unlawful use of credit or debit card, regardless of amount, is a felony. The state legislature should pass a law reducing the penalties for this offense.