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A felony may be punishable with imprisonment for two or more years or death in the case of the most serious felonies, such as murder.The actual prison sentence handed out has no effect on this; the classification is based on the maximum sentence possible under law.

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Similar to felonies in some civil law countries (Italy, Spain) are delicts, whereas in others (France, Belgium, Switzerland) crimes are more serious and delicts (or délits) are less serious.

Consequently, the distinction between felony and misdemeanor became increasingly arbitrary."The common law divided participants in a felony into four basic categories: (1) first-degree principals, those who actually committed the crime in question; (2) second-degree principals, aiders and abettors present at the scene of the crime; (3) accessories before the fact, aiders and abettors who helped the principal before the basic criminal event took place; and (4) accessories after the fact, persons who helped the principal after the basic criminal event took place.

Indeed, at common law when the British and American legal systems divorced in 1776, felonies were crimes punishable by either death or forfeiture of property.

In the course of the 20th century, however, American jurisdictions eliminated the distinction among the first three categories." Gonzales v.

All felonies remain a serious crime, but concerns of proportionality (i.e., that the punishment fit the crime) have in modern times prompted legislatures to require or permit the imposition of less serious punishments, ranging from lesser terms of imprisonment to the substitution of a jail sentence or even the suspension of all incarceration contingent upon a defendant's successful completion of quantitatively estimate and compare the effects of a crime upon its specific victims or upon society generally.

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