What Are the Main Differences Between State and Federal Corrections?

By Lindsay Kramer - Updated March 15, 2018
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At its core, the difference between a state and federal prison is the government body that operates it. 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 higher security levels and larger populations of white collar criminals, versus state prisons that generally have more violent offenders.

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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.

Jail vs. Prison

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 or any criminal act like drug trafficking or homicide that occurs on federal property or involves the crossing of state lines, they face a federal criminal charge. These charges are heard in federal district courts throughout the country where they are ruled upon by federal judges.

Federal courts are held to federal sentencing guidelines. Many charges have mandatory minimum sentence lengths for convicted individuals, and, because of this, federal prison sentences tend to be longer than state prison sentences. During federal trials, representatives from federal agencies, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration, testify. 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.

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 tend to be non-violent offenders. 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.

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.

United States Prison Statistics

As of 2017, 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 2013. 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.

About the Author

Lindsay Kramer is a freelance writer and editor who has been working in the legal niche since 2012. Her primary focus areas within this niche are family law and personal injury law. Lindsay works closely with a few legal marketing agencies, providing blog posts, website content and marketing materials to law firms across the United States.

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