What Are the Main Differences Between State and Federal Corrections?

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At the core, the difference between state and federal prisons are the government bodies that operate them. State prisons are operated by state governments, and federal prisons are operated by the federal government. The differences between the two types of prisons in the United States go beyond this, though. Federal prisons tend to have larger populations of white collar criminals, such as fraudsters and tax evaders, versus state prisons that generally have a higher proportion of violent offenders.

Jail vs. Prison: Are they the Same?

Federal and state prisons are not the only types of correctional facility in the United States. Although the terms “jail” and “prison” are sometimes used interchangeably, jails are not the same as prisons. Jails are operated at the state, county or municipal level and house individuals awaiting trial and those serving short sentences. In addition to jails and prisons, individuals are incarcerated in Indian Country jails, juvenile detention facilities, military prisons, civil commitment centers, prisons in U.S. territories and immigration detention facilities throughout the country and its territories.

What is the Difference Between State and Federal Prison?

The difference between state and federal prison starts in court. When individuals are charged with a federal offense such as tax evasion, or they commit crimes on federal property or crimes that cross state lines such as drug trafficking or kidnapping, they face federal criminal charges. These charges are brought by federal prosecutors on behalf of the federal government. They are heard in federal district courts throughout the country, where they are ruled upon by federal judges.

During federal criminal trials, representatives from federal agencies, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration, testify on behalf of the United States. Generally, defending against a federal charge is more complicated than defending a state charge because the federal government has more resources available to use in prosecution. State crimes, by contrast, are tried in state courts. If the sentence requires incarceration, it will be in a state prison.

So how do they differ?

  • Federal prison sentences tend to be longer than state prison sentences.  Many federal charges have mandatory minimum sentence lengths for convicted individuals which are sometimes, though not always, longer than state-mandated penalties for a similar type of crime.  
  • State prisons tend to have more violent offenders in their populations. Because the types of cases heard in federal court tend to be non-violent offenses like fraud and identity theft, the individuals serving time in federal prisons are more likely to be non-violent offenders (although federal prisons do contain kidnappers, sex traffickers, drug dealers and murderers). State prisons tend to house a higher percentage of violent vs. non violent criminals, as violent crimes are typically creatures of state law.
  • Federal prisoners could be sent anywhere. Individuals sentenced to federal prison may be sent to any prison in the country, whereas individuals sentenced to state prison serve their sentences in the state where they are convicted.
  • Federal prisons are perceived as better run. The Federal Bureau of Prisons receive more funding and thus tend to have better food, facilities and education programs. State prison systems are reliant on state taxes for their budget and are often perceived as underfunded and poorly managed.   

There are also many similarities between state and federal prisons. Both often offer work and education programs for inmates. Through these programs, inmates can build vocational skills, pursue higher education and earn money.

Read More: How to Locate a Person That is in a Federal Prison

United States Prison Statistics

As of 2018, more than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 716 people incarcerated for every 100,000 residents, as of in 2018. Additional facts about incarceration in America include:

  • There are 1,719 state prisons in the United States.
  • The Bureau of Prisons operates 102 federal prisons.
  • There are 3,163 local jails that serve America’s short-term incarceration needs.
  • Twenty percent of incarcerated Americans were convicted of drug offenses.
  • As of 2017, 4,500 minors are serving time in adult correctional facilities.
  • In total, 34,000 minors were in detention facilities, with another 20,000 living in residential facilities operated by juvenile justice systems.

At both the state and the federal level, prison security levels vary. There are separate facilities for men and women at both levels, and both provide resources like counseling and substance addiction treatment for inmates who need them. For most prisoners, the overall goal is rehabilitation and eventual release.


  • State correctional facilities are operated by state governments and house individuals convicted under state law. Federal correctional facilities are operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and house individuals convicted under federal law.

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