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Last Updated on: 21st October 2023, 09:04 am
If you’ve ever been charged with a crime, you probably know that the case can either be heard in state or federal court. But what’s the difference, and why does it matter? In this article, we’ll break down the key differences between state and federal criminal cases in a simple, easy-to-understand way.
The first big difference is jurisdiction – meaning which court system has the power to hear the case. State courts handle cases involving violations of state laws. For example, murder, assault, theft, and drunk driving charges are usually state crimes. Federal courts deal with federal laws like tax evasion, civil rights violations, and crimes committed across state borders or on federal land. Both court systems can charge you if your crime violates both state and federal laws.
Since state and federal courts enforce different laws, the charges and penalties you face will depend on where your case is tried. States have their own criminal codes, sentencing guidelines, and criminal procedures. Federal criminal law comes from the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes passed by Congress. The types of crimes prosecuted federally include drug trafficking, immigration violations, white-collar financial crimes as well as major frauds against the government. Federal laws often have harsher punishments than state laws – for example, some federal drug crimes carry mandatory minimum sentences of 5, 10, or 20 years in prison.
There are major structural differences between state and federal courts. Every state has its own court system made up of trial courts, appeals courts, and a state Supreme Court. Federal courts include district courts, appeals courts called Circuit Courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court. State judges are usually elected or appointed by state officials, while federal judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Also, federal courts have jurisdiction over the entire country, so federal law is applied more uniformly nationwide.
State criminal cases are handled by prosecutors who work for the local District Attorney’s office. They prosecute crimes that violate state laws. Federal prosecutors work for the U.S. Department of Justice and prosecute cases involving violations of federal law. They have more resources and handle more complex cases than state prosecutors. For example, large drug trafficking rings are often prosecuted federally. Both state and federal prosecutors have a lot of power and discretion over criminal charging and plea bargaining.
Some key defendants’ rights are the same in both court systems – like the right to a jury trial, right against self-incrimination, and right to counsel. However, the way these rights play out can differ. For instance, federal juries have 12 members while state jury sizes vary. Also, indigent defendants are provided public defenders in state courts and CJA attorneys in federal courts. Overall, federal courts tend to have more pretrial motions and procedural rules to follow.
After arrest, the pretrial process has some differences too. The main steps are booking, bail hearings, preliminary hearings, plea bargaining, and motions to suppress evidence. Key contrasts are that state courts tend to set lower bail amounts, have quicker timelines, and fewer pretrial motions. Also, not all states use grand juries to bring charges like federal courts do. In federal court, prosecutors have to present evidence to a grand jury to get an indictment before a case can proceed.
Federal sentences tend to be harsher with stricter mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines for judges. There is no parole in the federal system – inmates serve at least 85% of their sentence. States have more flexibility in sentencing and most allow parole. Also, death penalty cases are tried in state court, except for rare federal crimes like treason. The appeals process differs too – federal cases get appealed to the Circuit Court while state appeals go to the state appeals court.
If convicted and sentenced to prison, federal inmates serve their time in prisons operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). State inmates are housed in prison systems run by each state’s Department of Corrections. Some key differences are that federal prisons have fewer geriatric and special needs facilities, and they are more likely to place inmates farther from their families. But federal prisons tend to have safer conditions and more educational programs.
Both systems can sentence offenders to probation for less serious crimes. Federal probation tends to have more conditions like drug testing and counseling. States also use parole boards to determine if and when inmates should be released early from prison. The federal system has no parole – inmates max out their sentences minus 15% for good behavior.
Many states allow expungement of criminal records for certain offenses after a period of time, which gives people a fresh start. Federal law does not provide for expungement of federal convictions, however, and federal criminal records stay on your record for life.
So in summary, some of the main differences between state and federal criminal cases include:
As you can see, the court system that handles your criminal case has a big impact. Understanding these key differences between state and federal prosecution is helpful for anyone facing criminal charges.
State Court – Wex Legal Dictionary, Cornell Law School
About Federal Courts – United States Courts
Plea Bargaining and Conviction Rates – DOJ Bureau of Justice Assistance
Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure – Legal Information Institute
Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual 2018 – United States Sentencing Commission
BOP: Federal Prisons – Federal Bureau of Prisons
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