Punishment Schemes

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

Conspiracy laws and their corresponding punishments exhibit a considerable range of variability across different states within the United States. This lack of uniformity stems from a multitude of factors, including the nature of the crime, its implications, and state-specific approaches to criminal law. Although variations exist, some general patterns can help in understanding the prevailing legal landscape.

Misdemeanor vs. Felony: A Fundamental Distinction

One of the most basic dividing lines in conspiracy punishments lies between misdemeanors and felonies. As a general rule, a conspiracy to commit a felony is itself considered a felony, while a conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor is classified as a misdemeanor. This principle helps to maintain a level of symmetry between the severity of the criminal intention and the seriousness of the conspiracy charge. In states that follow this model, individuals are penalized in a way that reflects the gravity of the crime they planned to commit.

Uniform Sentencing with the Target Offense

Some state statutes adopt an approach where the punishment for conspiracy mirrors that of the target offense. In other words, if you are convicted of conspiring to commit a crime that carries a sentence of five years, the conspiracy charge would carry the same potential sentence. This method aims to deter would-be criminals by attaching severe penalties to even the planning stages of a crime, effectively elevating the conspiracy to the same level as the intended criminal act.

Variable Sentencing Based on Severity

A third group of states provides distinct sentences depending on whether the conspiracy aims to commit a misdemeanor or a felony. This approach offers a more nuanced grading system. For example, a conspiracy to commit a felony may be classified as a lower-level felony than the target offense, but still as a felony nonetheless. On the other hand, a conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor might carry a lighter sentence but remains categorized as a misdemeanor.

The Complexity of Multiple Jurisdictions

Adding another layer of complexity is the interplay between state and federal conspiracy laws. Often, federal statutes carry stiffer penalties and are applied in cases involving interstate criminal activities or federal interests. Therefore, individuals involved in such conspiracies might face even more severe consequences, possibly including federal charges.


While it is challenging to encapsulate all the nuances of state-level conspiracy punishments, it is generally accurate to say that a conspiracy to commit a felony is treated as a felony and one to commit a misdemeanor as a misdemeanor. However, within that framework, states diverge significantly in how they structure sentences, ranging from mirroring the intended offense to having a tiered approach based on the severity of the crime being conspired. This variability makes it crucial for legal practitioners and defendants alike to be well-versed in the specific statutes applicable in their jurisdiction.

Key Terms


References and Further Reading

Conspiracy.” Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice.

Modification History

File Created:  07/13/2018

Last Modified:  09/13/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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