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What's the Difference Between Jail and Prison?


The words “jail” and “prison” have both been around for hundreds of years. Because of their lengthy background, they have been used interchangeably for decades. Although in some contexts, swapping out one for the other is acceptable, and people can typically determine what a person means when they say someone was in jail or someone else was in prison, the two have different meanings in the criminal justice system.

What Is Jail?

“Jail” is defined as a place of confinement for a person awaiting trial and/or sentencing. When someone is arrested they are afforded a hearing where a judge explains the charges to them and what the potential conviction penalties are; the defendant can also enter a plea at that time. To ensure the defendant shows up to court, they can be held in jail until that hearing. In some cases, they aren’t held in custody the entire time; they could be released on bail or bond.

If the person’s case goes to trial, and they are convicted of the offenses – whether through a guilty plea or verdict – they must then attend another hearing for sentencing. During this proceeding, the judge tells the defendant what penalties they face. Although this hearing can come immediately after the conviction, most often days pass between the judgment and the sentencing. When such a delay exists, the defendant can be placed back in jail until they are sentenced.

Length of Stay in a Jail

Jail is also for short-term incarceration stays – usually for less than one year. Typically, a person convicted of a misdemeanor offense will be sentenced to a specific length of stay in jail. For example, in California, if a person is convicted of petty theft, which is a misdemeanor, they could be sent to jail for up to 6 months.

What Is Prison?

A prison is a long-term place of incarceration for a person convicted of a felony or a crime that results in imprisonment of more than 1 year. Whereas jails are run by local law enforcement or governments, prisons are operated by state or federal governments.

Because prisons are meant for longer terms, they are equipped to handle the daily living needs of the population. Generally, inmates have access to more facilities and programs in a prison as opposed to jail.

Prison Security Levels

There are various types of security levels in prisons, including minimum, medium, and maximum.

The kind of institution a person is sent to typically depends on the seriousness of the offense they were convicted of:

  • Maximum security is for people who were found guilty of a violent crime. These types of facilities have various measures in place to keep inmates in their cells.
  • Medium security prisons also have a high-level of security, but inmates have more opportunities to leave their cells for such things as treatments.
  • Minimum security prison inmates are in non-secure dormitories that correctional officers patrol.

For Legal Representation, Call Appel & Morse

Whether you were charged with a misdemeanor or felony offense, you can be confident that our attorneys will provide superior legal guidance throughout your case. Together, we have over 40 years of combined experience and have an in-depth understanding of the criminal justice system. When you retain our services, we will answer all your questions and let you know the charges you’re facing and possible outcomes.

Schedule your free case evaluation by calling us at (805) 467-6060 or contacting us online.

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