Jail vs. Prison: What You Need to Know

About 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States today.

But, the distinction between jail and prison can be extremely confusing. How do you know which is which?

We can help. Let’s go through the differences between jail vs prison.

What is Jail?

Jail, compared to prison, is a much smaller facility. They’re usually run by the sheriff’s office or the municipal government. There are generally much fewer people in jails than there are in prisons. There are currently over 3,000 jails in operation across the country.

If you’re convicted of a crime and given a sentence of less than one year, you’ll likely spend your time in jail. This is especially true if the crime you were convicted of was a misdemeanor. Some of the crimes that would make you eligible to serve your sentence in jail rather than prison (depending on what state you’re in) include:

  • Driving while intoxicated
  • Shoplifting
  • Stalking
  • Reckless driving
  • Prostitution
  • Betting on an election
  • Public indecency
  • Public intoxication
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Unlawful assembly
  • Possession of certain drugs (depending on the quantity and the state)
  • Violating open container laws
  • Evidence tampering

Some crimes are only misdemeanors in some states. And, some crimes are only misdemeanors in certain circumstances. For example, if you are repeatedly convicted of the same crime (such as battery), your charge may be upgraded to a felony.

Jail can also be where people who are currently awaiting sentencing are held. This is sometimes referred to as lockup. If you can’t afford bail, you may be held in these facilities. 

If you have a loved one in jail, you’ll probably want to look at the different ways of getting in contact with them.

What is Prison?

A prison is a larger institution, run by the state or federal government. To be put in one of these facilities, you must be convicted of breaking either a state or federal law. Depending on your state, the jails or prisons may also be privately operated. There are currently over 1,800 state prisons operating in the United States, along with 110 federal prisons.

Usually, if you’re convicted of a felony, you’ll go to prison. Crimes that would usually require a stay in prison, rather than jail, include:

  • Murder
  • Theft of property over a certain monetary value
  • Inciting to insurrection, riot, or violence
  • Perjury
  • Aggravated animal cruelty
  • Arson
  • Obstruction of justice
  • Vandalizing federal property
  • Sexual assault
  • Kidnapping
  • Lying under oath

However, where you end up will depend on what state you’re in, and whether or not it’s a state or federal crime. There are also sometimes exceptions based on the amount of room available.

Jail vs Prison: Now You Know

There are major differences between jail vs prison that are important to understand. Hopefully, you now have some understanding of the distinctions between the two.

Do you need more information on other criminal justice topics? Scroll through a few of the other posts on this website.

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