US Penal System Overview:

Last modified: $Date: 2003/07/09 07:11:09 $

Federal penal system

The Federal legislation is found in a document called the US Code of which Title 18 is of particular interest since it contains most of the penal law. It is subdivided in 5 sections:

  1. Crimes: list of criminal offenses, subdivided in 123 Chapters such as arson, civil right violations, fraud, obsenity, perjury, riots, terrorism, etc.
  2. Criminal procedures: subdivided in 35 chapters such as extradition, grand jury, sentences, etc.

  3. Prisons and prisoners
  4. Correction of Youthful Offenders
  5. Immunity of witnesses

So far, I have only been interested in the first two. They broadly define offences on which an US District Court (in this case Southern Distrct of New York) may assert jurisdiction. However, State penal law are much more specific in their definitions, allowing different States to set different standards for a conviction.

Note that New York State is part of the second circuit court of Appeals (listed in 28 US § 41).

The other Titles of the US code cover other aspect of the civil society, anything from agriculture to highways to public contracts. Unfortunately, they also define felonies (indictable offenses). The best list of misdeamenours outside of Title 18 I've found is a paper from entitled "Misdemeanours: how to get them" but it's 20+ years old.

You'll also a lot of information about the criminal procedure in the Rules of Criminal Proceedure and the Rules of Evidence. In Law & Order, these are often invoked by defense attorneys to exclude evidence which was gathered in violation of the Rules.

Federal severity classification

On this subject, the severity of Federal crimes is divided in categories (18 US § 3559, 3571 and 3581):

  1. Petty offense: $5000- fine (as long as no death is involved)
  2. Misdemeanours: $100000 or $250000- fine depending if death is involved
  3. Felonies:
The 2002 Federal Sentencing Guideline is used to calculate the actual length of the sentence using a point system. There's a Base Offense Level (1 to 43) and then modifiers repeat offenders, hate crimes, mitigating role, etc. At the end one would look at Chapter 5, Part A: Sentencing Table to determine prison time.

New York Penal Code

Chapter 40 of the New York Consolidated Laws is called "Penal Law" and is at the same level as 18 US. This sections add new crimes categories entierly (against prostitution, gambling, which more liberal state do not consider offensive) or go in depth covering crimes already defined in the US Code.

Compare the Federal murder definition to New York State's.

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