I try to understand why there are US federal and state prisons, and county jails.

I did not find a clear separation of the use of the three variants when reading Wikipedia regarding the topic. It explains which of them is "usually" or "generally" used for which inmates and seems to imply no clear rule.

To me, the separation is confusing (but interesting), because the German system handles all detentions (except youth) in a unified way in the "Justizvollzugsanstalt".

I'm wondering about both the separation of federal prisons and state prisons, and the separation of the former prisons to county jails.

Are there political factors that influence how that separation is used, and that it exists in the first place?

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    Are you asking about the separation between federal/state prisons? Or the separation between jails (which are typically at he county, or serving a cluster of counties), and prisons (which are generally at the state or federal level? Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 19:12
  • 1
    @JackOfAllTrades234 Both of the separations. I'll clarify. Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 19:19

3 Answers 3


In the United States you have Federal and State prison systems fall under Dual Sovereignty Doctrine which gives separate Jurisdiction of crimes to each state in which the crime was committed and the Federal government if it involves two or more states. Because of this, each state administers its own legal system including a prison system that is separate from the federal system.

This arises from the nature of the United States as a Federal government and the Constitution. The 10th Amendment of the Constitution explicitly states that powers not given to the Federal Government by the Constitution are devolved to the state. While technically the Federal Government does have jurisdiction in all of the country, the Feds usually let the states handle Criminal matters unless such matters do not resolve Federal Crimes OR are the same crime but do not sufficiently resolve the Crime. The Feds do have Criminal Jurisdiction in any Crime that crosses State Lines.

In the case of the 2002 D.C. Beltway Sniper, the crimes were comitted in Maryland (MD) and Virginia (VA). Because the perpetrator crossed state lines in the commission of his crimes, he was also under Federal Jurisdiction and could have been tried by the Federal system as well (in the end, he was only tried by VA and MD... as both Jurisdictions sufficiently convicted, the Feds did not elect to step in).

It should be pointed out that the above case doesn't violate Double Jeopardy because he was only tried by VA for the crime in VA and the MD crimes in MD. Had the Federal level elected to try him, the Feds would also not violate Double Jeopardy because they count as a separate legal entity seeking justice (they do have policy to ensure that they don't come close, as discussed in the linked article).

Keep in mind, that the States have limited sovereignty in the US and are in effect, small nation-states (that all agree to let the Feds deal with foreign affairs). Thus MD and VA have different rules and legal systems (one of the biggest issues in the Sniper case was MD rarely if ever used their Death Penalty at the time (it has since been abolished) where as VA uses it much more (and still has it and did in fact execute the one Sniper who qualified for it)). The trial in MD was done simply to give the MD victims justice after he was already convicted in VA.

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    It's worth noting that piling on convictions, like in your example is less about 'doing justice', than making certain that even if one conviction is overturned, the others still damn them. Interesting bit about dual sovereignty though, I'd always been under the impression that only state or federal could convict you (no stacking two convictions) for the same specific crime, but apparently that is not the case. Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 19:31
  • You have not explained once why dual jurisdiction would imply separate prisons.
    – user5097
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 17:38
  • @NajibIdrissi: "Because of this, each state administers its own legal system including a prison system that is separate from the federal system." Literally the second sentence.
    – hszmv
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 19:02
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Jan 7, 2018 at 7:18
  • You did not explain the second part of your second sentence: "including a prison system that is separate from the federal system." It does not explain why the federal government does not pay a state to imprison federal convicts, or vice versa, why a state does not pay the federal government to house state convicts. While separation of powers obviously implies separate courts and separate parole boards, it does not immediately follow that the prisons must also be separate. (Indeed some prisons are privately owned)
    – Qsigma
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 9:50

I'm wondering about both the separation of federal prisons and state prisons, and the separation of the former prisons to county jails.

Are there political factors that influence how that separation is used, and that it exists in the first place?

This is mostly a function of who pays for the very high cost of keeping someone incarcerated (typically $25,000-$75,000 per person per year depending on the type of facility involved).

State Prisons v. Federal Prisons

Existing Practice

People sentenced to felony prison sentences by state courts for state crimes are incarcerated in state prisons at state expense, while people sentences to felony prison sentences by federal courts for federal crimes are incarcerated in federal prisons at federal expense.

This is a function of the jurisdiction of each government under a dual sovereignty system as discussed in the answer by @hszmv

The Motivation Behind Existing Practice

The separation of federal and state prisons prevents the federal government with burdening states with the cost of paying to incarcerate people incarcerated as a result of federal laws, and vice versa.

If the federal government wants long sentences for drug offenders, it is going to have to foot the bill for paying for keeping those drug offenders in prison for a long period of time.

Jails v. State Prisons

Existing Practice

County jails are used to incarcerate people pending trial in courts usually organized on a county by county basis for bureaucratic and budgetary purposes, and also for people convicted of misdemeanors (traditionally punishable by up to one year in jail, although local practice varies and most states have multiple grades of misdemeanors with different maximum sentences).

(The federal government often contracts with county government to hold federal criminal defendants awaiting trial or sentenced to misdemeanors in county jails on a fairly generous per diem basis because it doesn't have a high enough volume of such defendants to justify having its own jail system in most places - about 99% of criminal prosecutions are handled by state and local governments, and federal criminal defendants are often white collar criminals who can post bail pending trial and then face felony sentences if convicted.)

State prisons hold people convicted of state crimes called felonies that are punished by more than one year of incarceration (conventionally).

The division between state prisons and county jails is more arbitrary and a matter of tradition. State law (or at least an easy change to a state constitution) could change it.

The constitutional allocation of responsibility for criminal justice matters between the national government and state governments in Germany is closer to the allocation of responsibility for criminal justice matters between state and local governments in the United States than it is to the allocation of responsibility for criminal justice matters between the federal government in the United States and the state governments in the United States. German states routinely administer criminal laws enacted by the German federal government. But, in the United States, it is very rare and controversial for U.S. states to administer criminal laws enacted by the U.S. federal government. In contrast, U.S. counties routinely administer criminal laws enacted by state governments.

The Motivation Behind Existing Practice

Putting the economic burden of pre-trial detention on counties makes sense because it discourages counties from underfunding local courts and prosecuting attorneys' offices that determine how long it takes to get trials scheduled.

A related factor is that local law enforcement typically varies much more in how they exercise their discretion in prosecuting misdemeanor offenses than they do in how they exercise their discretion in prosecuting felony offenses.

For example, there would be a great deal of variation in how often local law enforcement officers and prosecutors prosecute homeless people for trespassing, but there would be very little difference with how often local law enforcement officers and prosecutors investigate or prosecute a report of an armed robbery or a murder. Keeping local fiscal responsibility for costs that involve more local discretion, while keeping state fiscal responsibility for costs that involve less local discretion makes sense.

While felonies are typically punished near the middle of the allowed range of sentencing discretion, misdemeanors are predominantly punished near the bottom of the allowed range of sentencing discretion insofar as incarceration is concerned, often less than a month, even for the most serious misdemeanor offenses punishable by up to a year or more in jail.

The notion behind having misdemeanor sentences following a conviction of a misdemeanor offense served locally is that the bureaucratic bother of transferring a convicted misdemeanor defendant who often has only a modest number of days of incarceration left after time served awaiting trial (or simply because misdemeanor sentences are often much shorter than the permitted maximum sentence) isn't worth the trouble in the vast majority of case. If the defendants were sent to prison, they'd be processed into the system and then immediately start the bureaucratic process of getting them out, with lots of travel expense each way in prisoner secure buses.

Some states, notably California, have tinkered with how the burden of incarceration costs are handled in their unified court system, which has changed the balance of how prosecutors choose to charge felonies v. misdemeanors. Prior to reform there was an incentive to charge someone with a minor felony rather than a serious misdemeanor, when possible, in order to shift incarceration costs from the local government to whom they reported, to the state.

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    Some federal defendants are "often white collar criminals," but an increasing proportion of federal charges, more than half now, are for immigration violations like illegal re-entry, plus drug and supervision violations that are less likely to result in bail. Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 0:38
  • @ZachLipton This is true, although some immigration violators are demographically and socio-economically closer to white collar crime than ordinary street criminals. Another significant part of the federal criminal docket in certain districts consists of felonies committed in Indian Country (the legal term) where tribal jails often hold defendants prior to conviction.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 5:44
  • "pre-trial conviction" should be "pre-trial detention". I don't think I can do an edit that only changes a few letters, but maybe if you add something else you can do it. Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 19:16
  • @MontyHarder Thanks for catching that typo. My bad. Fixed.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 19:19
  • This explains who pays, but doesn't explain why one jurisdiction does not pay another jurisdiction to incarcerate its convicts, except for California, which is very interesting, so +1.
    – Qsigma
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 15:11

The criminal justice system was not designed and instead it emerged thousands of years ago and all criminal procedures were managed at the local level. According to the legal historians when the American Colonies were established the larger colonies were subdivided by counties and all counties has the same criminal code. Except for judges who were in a circuit all criminal case processing was done at the county level.

After the Revolution some of the states started to build prisons so the state role increased but there still was no central control and very little interaction between counties.

The system established in the colonies was based on the English system used at that time. Regional jails have been tried but there are often serious fights about how they are funded. In a few states the jails are operated by the state and they often have high jail incarcerations rates and low prison incarceration rates.

Low population counties cannot afford to have a jail and they hold their prisoners in a neighboring county. I think that closing of jails in small population counties is a likely trend.

A link to a law review article by former Judge Nancy Gertner on the history of sentencing follows. https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=7361&;amp;context=jclc

A link to a speech in 1995 to the California Judges Association by Prof. Whitebread (1943-208) is http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/History/whiteb1.htm

He gave a historical review of the origin of federal drug laws.

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