Crimes are usually classified as treason, felony, or misdemeanor. The fundamental distinction between felonies and misdemeanors rests with the penalty and the power of imprisonment. In general, a misdemeanor is an offense for which a punishment other than death or imprisonment in the state prison is prescribed by law. The term "degree of crime" refers to distinctions in the culpability of an offense because of the circumstances surrounding its commission. Crimes are sometimes divided according to their nature into crimes mala in se and crimes mala prohibita; the former class comprises those acts that are thought to be immoral or wrong in themselves, or naturally evil, such as murder, rape, arson, burglary, larceny, and the like; the latter class embraces those acts that are not naturally evil but are prohibited by statute because they infringe on the rights of others (e.g., acts in restraint of trade that have been made criminal under antitrust legislation).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.