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Key Differences Between Federal Prison And State Prison

Key Differences Between Federal Prison And State Prison - Brooking Industries

Key Differences Between Federal Prison And State Prison


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There is a commonly known phrase that states, “When you do the crime, you do the time.” If you are charged with any type of crime, you will be held accountable. A federal crime lands you in federal prison, a state crime will land you in state prison. Your first taste of incarceration, however, is at the county jail. Jail inmates will remain in the county lock-up until they are bonded out or scheduled for trial.

There are many different types of offenses, ranging from very violent crimes to white-collar crimes. The criminal justice system divides crimes into misdemeanors and felonies ranging in their severity and other circumstances. Law enforcement agencies gather evidence to substantiate any crimes that are committed. The evidence is turned over to the judicial system and appropriate punishment is given to the criminal.

Federal Prisons

Federal prisons are under the control of the Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Prisons. The BOP manages 102 federal prisons in the United States. Federal prisons have varying security levels depending on the criminals they house. Incarcerated individuals who have performed heinous crimes like murder and espionage will be housed in maximum security prisons. Individuals who have committed less violent crimes will be placed in minimum or low security prisons.

Federal charges that result in federal prison time include trafficking drugs or other contraband across state lines, violating immigration laws, assaulting a federal law enforcement officer, or committing a crime that spans multiple states, online or in person. White collar crimes like embezzlement, money laundering, and securities/corporate fraud will all result in federal prison terms.

State Prisons

In the United States, there are 1,719 state prisons housing close to 1.3 million prisoners. Many of those prisoners were convicted on drug-related charges. Individuals who are incarcerated at the state level have been charged with crimes committed within their state. Many individuals serving at the state level have received lighter sentences and may receive an offer of rehabilitation. Rehabilitation options result in an early release and a chance at a brighter future.

Crimes such as a DUI, arson, theft, burglary, rape, murder, and drug/sex crimes will result in sentences served at state prisons. Minimum security prisons are meant to house individuals who committed a crime that did not result in bodily injury or death. If an individual commits a crime that resulted in harm to another person or death, they will be sent to a maximum security prison.


City and county jails handle short-term incarceration stays. With over 3,163 city/county jails across the country, they are responsible for housing individuals who have been charged with all types of criminal activity. The individual has the option to have bail posted (if bail is set) or remain in jail until their trial date.

Many people who are charged with minor crimes or infractions like disorderly conduct, minor theft, or contempt of court, will serve their sentence in the city/county jail. In some cases, they may be required to serve weekends or specific days that will allow them to continue to maintain their employment. While county jails are secure, they rarely have the resources to provide medium security or higher.

Private Correctional Facilities

Private correctional facilities are for-profit institutions that house inmates when overcrowding occurs in state or federal prisons. At any given time, it is believed that between 10 and 12 percent of all inmates are housed in private, for-profit correctional institutions. While these institutions are necessary to ensure that all inmates are able to serve their sentences, there has been much debate over several years over whether or not they are treated fairly. There is concern that inmates may not receive the rehabilitation resources they are entitled to.

Different Levels of Security

  • Administrative – Administrative prisons include facilities designed for inmates with special health concerns, but it also includes the country’s only Super Max prison. The ADX, or Super Max prison maintains the highest level of security possible with 24-hour surveillance and extreme security measures on every level.
  • Minimum Security – Minimum security facilities are used for non-violent offenders. They offer rehabilitative services and work opportunities. Inmates are housed in dorms and there is little in the way of perimeter fencing or boundaries.
  • Low Security – Work-release and rehabilitation programs are still offered, but there is more emphasis on security. There are more security officers present and the facility has perimeter fencing and other measures to strengthen the outer boundaries.
  • Medium Security – Medium security prisons often house violent offenders and have a much stronger security system. Inmates live in cells and are faced with stricter programs. Perimeter fencing is now reinforced with razor wires. Electronic detection systems are located throughout the facility.
  • High/Maximum Security – A high or maximum security prison is sometimes referred to as a penitentiary. Both guards and cameras are used to monitor inmates. Razor wire fences and high walls surround the facility. Watch towers are placed strategically along the outer perimeter.

Inmates who are about ready to “time out” or finish their sentence may be moved from a medium security prison to a low or minimum security facility. Understanding the different levels of security will help you understand what goes into sentencing recommendations and why certain criminals are sent to minimum security and others are sent to maximum security prisons.

Juvenile Detention Centers

Minors who commit particularly heinous crimes like murder may be sentenced as adults and incarcerated in adult prisons. The majority of minors, however, will be sentenced to a facility that houses other offenders their own age. These juvenile detention centers house individuals who are under the age of 18.

Juveniles convicted of property crimes, truancy, theft, violent acts or drug-related offenses are sent to juvenile detention centers. These facilities offer juveniles an opportunity to complete their education and learn a trade so they can return to society as a productive and law-abiding adult. Close to 34,000 minors are housed in juvenile detention centers. Many juveniles are incarcerated in detention centers for less than one year. Others who have committed violent crimes may not be released until they have reached the age of 18.

Residential Facilities for Minors

Residential facilities for minors are less strict than juvenile detention centers. They are geared more toward less violent crimes and offer juveniles more opportunities for growth than other options. Counselling may be provided as well as educational opportunities that allow students to explore the world around them.

The Juvenile Justice System estimates that there are approximately 20,000 minors in residential facilities for minors. First-time offenders are normally sent to a residential facility. If the juvenile continues to offend or graduates to more substantial criminal activity, they may be moved to a juvenile detention center or tried as an adult and sent to an adult prison.

Parole and Life After Prison

Inmates who have received federal prison sentences and state prison sentences will be eligible for parole after they have completed a mandated amount of time. While there are situations where inmates are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, this is normally only for very severe crimes. In the majority of cases, especially at the state level, parole is offered for most non-violent crimes.

Inmates who have been released on parole must report to a parole officer regularly and keep them updated on what is going on in their lives. They must report changes of address and phone numbers as well as changes in their employment. Parole officers may demand random drug tests or request that a parolee meet unexpectedly. If the parolee breaks the law or violates their parole, they may be sent back to prison to complete the rest of their sentence.

There are many differences between state and federal prisons. The differences between each specific security level are also quite extensive. Law enforcement officers and prison guards are trained to deal with inmates at every security level. Understanding how the criminal justice system works and how inmates are secured is important, especially if you have a loved one who is incarcerated.

Once inmates have earned their release, they may require assistance in regaining their lives and adapting to their freedom. Counseling is available for many. Parole officers may also be able to provide assistance if it is needed, when it comes to finding employment or housing. Utilizing the resources they have available to them will hopefully prevent them from getting into any more trouble.

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