State versus federal crimes, what is the difference? State laws are enacted by state legislatures, whereas federal laws are enacted by Congress, but the differences don’t end there. When someone is convicted of a state-level crime, he or she is sentenced to jail or a state prison. On the other hand, when someone is convicted of a federal crime, the defendant is sentenced to federal prison.
For criminal defendants, one of their most pressing concerns is sentencing. There is a BIG difference between a five-year sentence and a twenty-year sentence. Since federal crimes typically involve drastically higher fines and lengthier sentences, this is something for defendants to be aware of, especially when their crime is illegal under both state and federal law.
Some crimes are criminalized under state law, while others are strictly criminalized under federal law. Then, there are crimes that are criminalized under both state and federal law. As a general rule, when an offense violates state and federal law, the punishment is much harsher under the federal statute.
Who Decides How to Prosecute?
If an offense is criminalized under state and federal law, how is it prosecuted? It depends on the facts of the case. In some jurisdictions, the investigators decide, sending some cases to state prosecutors and others to federal prosecutors.
In other jurisdictions, the prosecuting lawyer may decide if a case should be sent to federal court. Defense counsel however, does not play a role in the decision-making process. A federal criminal defense attorney can inform their client about the state vs. federal sorting process and help the client understand what to expect.
There are distinct differences between state and federal prisons themselves. State prisons tend to house the violent criminals, such as those who committed aggravated sexual assault, aggravated assault, and murder. These prisons are known for being less-secure than federal prisons and they have a reputation for being far more dangerous.
In contrast, federal prisons often house more educated, white collar criminals who commit financially-motivated crimes, such as mortgage fraud, bank robbery, insurance fraud, embezzlement, counterfeiting, and corporate fraud. Federal prisons don’t house as many violent offenders, but they are typically higher security than state prisons.