How Federal Sentencing Differs from State Sentencing – Insights from a Lawyer
Federal and state sentencing have some key differences that affect how criminal defendants are charged and sentenced. As a lawyer, I want to provide insights into these differences so people understand more about how the criminal justice system works in the United States.
Federal vs. State Laws
The first major difference is that federal crimes are based on violations of federal law, while state crimes are based on violations of state law.
- Federal laws apply across the entire United States and are enforced by federal agencies like the FBI, DEA, ATF, etc. Common federal crimes include drug trafficking, immigration violations, computer hacking, and financial fraud.
- State laws vary between states and are enforced by state and local police. Common state law crimes include assault, robbery, rape, murder, and other violent offenses.
So if you’re charged with illegally crossing the border, it will be a federal case, but if you’re charged with assault, it will likely be a state case. The key is looking at which law is alleged to have been broken.
Federal vs. State Courts
Since federal and state laws are different, if you are charged with a crime, the case will proceed in either the federal court system or the state court system, not both.
- Federal criminal cases are handled in federal district courts by federally-appointed judges. U.S. Attorneys prosecute on behalf of the federal government.
- State criminal cases are handled in state courts by elected state judges. Local prosecutors like district attorneys handle the cases on behalf of the state.
The two court systems have different rules, procedures, and forms of evidence that lawyers must understand thoroughly in order to provide the best defense.
One of the biggest differences between federal and state criminal cases is the sentencing, or punishments that can be imposed if convicted.
- Federal sentences tend to be much harsher overall compared to state sentences for similar crimes. There are several reasons for this:
- Mandatory minimum sentences – federal law requires minimum prison terms for many crimes that limit judicial discretion.
- Sentencing guidelines – federal judges must calculate sentencing ranges according to strict guidelines. While they aren’t mandatory, most sentences fall within the range.
- No parole – federal prisoners cannot be released early on parole like state prisoners often are. They must serve at least 85% of their sentence.
- State sentences vary widely depending on the state’s laws. Judges often have more flexibility and discretion in sentencing compared to federal judges. Many states allow parole as well.
For example, a drug trafficking offense will likely result in a decade or more in federal prison, while the same offense could potentially lead to just 1-3 years in the state system. The disparity in sentencing is very significant.
Impact on Defendants
These differences between federal and state prosecution have a huge impact on criminal defendants. Here are some key implications:
- Higher conviction rates – Around 90% of federal cases end in conviction due to mandatory minimums pressuring defendants to plead guilty. The conviction rate in state courts is much lower, around 68% .
- Less chance of early release – Parole provides state prisoners an incentive to rehabilitate in hopes of early release. No parole removes this incentive in the federal system.
- Different prison conditions – Federal prisons generally house non-violent offenders in safer conditions compared to state prisons. But prisoners are sent further from home.
- Longer consequences – Federal convictions often carry longer consequences like probation, fines, and loss of civil rights.
- Higher costs – The average cost to defend against federal charges is around $25,000 compared to $7,000 for state charges. Appeals are also more complex and expensive.
How an Experienced Lawyer Can Help
As you can see, the differences between state and federal criminal prosecution are significant. The long federal prison sentences in particular make the stakes extremely high.
Having an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer is critical to understand how to navigate the complex federal sentencing rules and advocate effectively for the lowest possible sentence under the guidelines. This can potentially knock years off a sentence.
An experienced lawyer will also know how to identify any constitutional or procedural issues that could lead to evidence being suppressed or charges reduced or dismissed. And in some cases, they may be able to negotiate with prosecutors to get charges filed in state court instead of federal court.
I’ve defended clients against both federal and state charges over my career. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you or a loved one are facing federal charges. My team and I will thoroughly review the case and outline the best defense strategy to mitigate the risks. The worst thing you can do is go it alone against the power of the federal government.