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What’s the Difference Between Federal and State Prisons?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Sep 25, 2023

If you're accused of a crime, depending on the nature of the offense and where it allegedly occurred, you'll either be charged with a state or federal crime. This determines the court where your trial will be held and where you may serve time if you are convicted.

 Difference Between Federal and State Prisons
There are a wide range of differences between a federal prison and a state correctional facility.

Federal prisons and state prisons are in many ways quite different from each other, so having an understanding of these institutions and how they work can be helpful as you and your defense attorney plan your strategy. 

The federal government operates federal prisons and houses inmates convicted of breaking federal laws in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They are often called federal correctional institutions. In contrast, state governments operate state prisons and house people convicted of breaking state laws.

Federal prisons are typically safer than state prisons as they hold inmates who are of a less violent and dangerous nature. There are many fewer federal prisons than state prisons, meaning they also have fewer prisoners.

Federal prisons typically have more rehabilitation programs, and prison terms are shorter than in state prisons. Both federal and state prisons are far different than local county jails, where inmates are held for short periods of time, usually under one year. County jails are owned and operated by the local city or county. Let's discuss more of the key differences between federal and state prisons.

Different Prison Systems - Explained 

Federal and state prisons are distinct entities operating under different jurisdictions and for other purposes.

Federal Prisons are managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP); these institutions house offenders convicted of federal crimes—those that violate laws passed by Congress. Federal inmates are tried and sentenced in federal court.

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) manages and regulates all federal penal and correctional institutions.

The federal prison system houses inmates who commit federal crimes or violate federal laws, such as child pornography, drug trafficking, fraud offenses, and racketeering.  Federal prisons have different levels of security, such as the following:

  • administrative security,
  • minimum security,
  • federal prison camps,
  • low security,
  • medium security, and
  • high security.

State prisons are state correctional facilities operated by state governments. They are designed to house inmates who violate state laws. For example, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation usually incarcerates all prisoners within the state prison system.

State prisons typically hold more violent criminals or people who have committed more violent crimes, such as murder, rape, and assault with a deadly weapon.  State prisons also have different levels of security, such as the following:

  • minimum security,
  • medium security, and
  • maximum security,

Inmates in state prisons get tried and sentenced in a state's criminal justice system. The average sentence is longer than a federal sentence.

Nature of Offenses: What Sends You Where?

Understanding whether your alleged crime falls under federal or state jurisdiction can shed light on where you might be incarcerated and the experience.

Federal offenses typically involve crossing state lines or international boundaries, as well as crimes against the United States as a whole. Examples include, but certainly aren't limited to, the following:

State offenses generally encompass crimes committed within a state's boundaries. Examples include:

  • Homicide,
  • Theft,
  • Assault,
  • Rape,
  • Armed robbery

As you might expect, many federal and state laws overlap when outlawing certain activities, such as drug possession or trafficking).

In most cases, the federal government will defer to state jurisdiction unless the crime crosses state lines or they have other legitimate reasons to assert preeminence. Only on rare occasions might you be tried in both federal and state courts for the same offense.

What Are the Common Differences between State and Federal Prisons?

Though federal and state prisons aim to incarcerate and rehabilitate offenders, their conditions, resources, and management practices differ. Let's examine some of the most significant differences between these systems and facilities.

  • Jurisdiction and Location: Federal prisons are scattered across the country, and the BOP determines where an inmate will serve their sentence based on factors such as security level, medical needs, and available space. Thus, you can be convicted of a federal crime in one state but serve your time in another state across the country. State prison locations are limited to the particular state's boundaries, and the state's Department of Corrections makes the placement decisions.
  • Security Levels: Both federal and state prisons have varying security levels, ranging from minimum to maximum. Federal prisons are categorized into five security levels: minimum, low, medium, high, and administrative. The latter includes medical centers, transfer centers, and other special facilities. State prisons, meanwhile, typically classify their institutions into three levels: minimum, medium, and maximum security.
  • Nature of Offenders: While federal law prosecutes and penalizes violent crimes with long prison terms, most federal convictions are for non-violent "white-collar" crimes—so federal prisons are mostly populated with non-violent and non-dangerous offenders. On the other hand, state prisons incarcerate inmates for a wide range of crimes, so these prisons contain a larger ratio of violent to non-violent prisoners.
  • Length of Prison Terms: Federal sentences follow U.S. Federal Sentencing Guidelines, providing a range of potential punishments based on crime severity and criminal history. State sentencing guidelines vary widely from state to state, leading to differences in prison term lengths. Generally speaking, while sentences for federal crimes tend to be longer than their state counterparts, federal sentences tend to be shorter overall since the federal government defers most violent crimes to the states where they were committed.
  • Number of Inmates: Since most criminal offenses are sentenced at the state level, state prisons tend to have more problems with overcrowding than federal facilities do.
  • Inmate Duties: Federal prisons require inmates to do some sort of employment unless they are medically unable. Most state prisons do the same, although the rules differ.
  • Rehabilitation Programs: Federal institutions tend to offer a wide range of rehabilitative programs and educational opportunities, from literacy programs and vocational training to broad access to library materials. State institutions tend to have fewer funds and may have fewer of these programs.

For more information, contact our federal criminal defense law firm. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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