A Brief Foray into Criminal Charges

In the next few posts we will begin to explore what charges people are being held on in the Buncombe County jail. Before that, however, I want to give you a rough map to the system of criminal charges.

Crimes in North Carolina (and beyond) are broadly grouped into two categories, misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors are not as serious as felonies and have a maximum sentence of 150 days plus a possible fine. Felonies are more serious, with penalties ranging from fines and probation to prison terms up to life imprisonment or the death penalty.

In general, the specific penalties depend on the “class” of the crime. Misdemeanors start from class 3 (the least serious), followed by 2, 1 and A1 (the most serious and generally associated with violent offenses). On the felony end, there are nine classes. In order of increasing seriousness, they are I, H, G, F, E, D, C, B1, B2, and A (A felonies are all punishable by life imprisonment or death). Sentencing is complicated by consideration of things like criminal history or aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

That’s all pretty theoretical, so let’s look at some examples from the (as of today) 511 different charges that have been listed for people in jail since January. Keep in mind that these are just some randomly picked examples – you can download the latest full list of charges here.

At the lowest end, class 3 misdemeanors include things like possessing a small amount of marijuana, urinating in public, driving without a license, or disorderly conduct. Class 2 includes things like harassment, reckless driving and low-level fraud. Class 1 includes more serious drug possession charges, various kinds of low-level theft, and communicating threats. Finally, A1 misdemeanors are typically violent, primarily assault charges.

Felonies range from drug possession or low-level financial crimes (like stealing a credit card) at the low end through property crimes like burglary or arson, low-level drug trafficking and various kinds of assault to high-level trafficking and violent crimes like rape or murder.

Driving while impaired (DWI) charges are a special case – they have a separate sentencing rubric with a complicated system of levels and aggravating or mitigating factors, but in the analyses we will be doing we have simply mapped them to approximate misdemeanor or felony classes based on similarity of the actual punishment ranges.

Finally, there are charges that don’t fall into any of the categories above. Some are infractions rather than crimes, which means that they may involve fines but not jail. Another category is violation of pretrial or post-conviction conditions. These are not in themselves crimes, but can cause a person to be held in jail or prison. And some of the charges that show up on the jail website simply indicate that someone is being held on behalf of another agency such as the federal government. To keep things as simple as possible, most of the analyses will be based on the most serious charge, and we will simply exclude anyone being held after conviction or on behalf of another agency.

Even so, as you see, the whole thing can get pretty complicated. For a basic analysis, though, we can  think of the various classes above simply as a 14-point range from least to most serious: a class 3 misdemeanor charge is labeled as level 1, while first degree murder, an A felony, is level 14. You can find the full mapping in the table below. To aid in our analysis,, we will also classify each charge as violent, drug-related, or DWI-related, as appropriate [1].

In the next post we will do a basic analysis of the top charges people are held on in the Buncombe County jail.

[1] In selecting which charges to tag as violent, we follow the methodology employed in the Measuring Justice Dashboard from the UNC School of Government Criminal Justice Innovation Lab.

*Much of the analysis here and in future posts is based on daily early morning downloads of jail data from the Buncombe County Police to Citizen dashboard, starting on January 3, 2022. If you want to perform your own analysis or check my work, you may download the data from daily_bcdf_occupants.csv and daily_bcdf_occupant_charges.csv. These files are updated with the latest data each day. Names and docket numbers are not included, but the occupants and their charges are related by the id and defendant_id fields, respectively. Coded charges are also available in bcdf_charge_definitions.csv.

LevelMisdemeanor ClassLevelFelony Class
1Class 35Class I
2Class 26Class H
3Class 17Class G
4Class A18Class F
9Class E
10Class D
11Class C
12Class B2
13Class B1
14Class A
Mapping of Crime Class to Numeric Level