What are the Differences Between State & Federal Punishments?


Accused of a federal crime? Unfortunately, I don’t have good news for you. And the picture doesn’t get any better when you talk about punishments.

In Texas, the State takes great pride in laying down severe punishments for crime. Our State is much tougher than many others.

However, get convicted of doing the same thing at the federal level, and you’ll generally experience more severe consequences.

Here are the main differences between Texas and federal punishments:

1. Federal Criminals Cannot Get Parole (and probation is rare)

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 eliminated parole for all crimes committed after November 1, 1987. But there is some good news. You can get released early for “exemplary” behavior, which can be up to 54 days off per year sentenced.

Parole at the Texas state level is complex, and works differently, depending on the crime. If you are convicted of a “3g” offense (an especially egregious or harmful offense), for example, you must serve 1/2 of your sentence before you’re eligible for parole. If you’re convicted of a non-3g offense, you must have “flat, good, or work” time credits equal to one-quarter of your sentence to be eligible for parole.

But that only makes you eligible for parole. To actually get parole, you need to get approval from the parole board – an entirely different process of its own.

Additionally, many crimes in State court are punished by placing the individual on probation where they serve no jail time as long as they comply with the conditions of probation.  It is much more difficult and rare for a crime in federal court to be so minor that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines calculate a sentence of probation.

2. Federal Sentences are Not Mandatory…But They’re Still Tough

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 addressed a concern of federal judges at the time: that sentences were too lenient and varied too much. So that law created a “Guidelines Manual” for all federal crimes.

It also created a system of points. Points are scored for the offense committed, how it was committed, and the offender’s background. The more points you get, the longer your sentence. 1 point equals a 6-month jail term. 43 put you in prison for life.

As of the 2005 US Supreme Court case U.S. v. Booker, the Guidelines Manual now has limits set on it. First, it’s only advisory. So, while it spells out sentences for crimes, judges aren’t required by law to lay down certain sentences. Second, a judge cannot enhance a sentence unless you have admitted to the facts leading to the enhancement, or if the jury has found those facts true.

Most judges will sentence you in accordance with the Guidelines Manual, and this manual doesn’t go easy on crime. No judge wants to be seen by the public as being too “lenient.”

3. Capital Punishment is Much Less Likely Under Federal Law

Since 1950, only 26 executions have been carried out at the federal level, and that includes military executions. At the federal level, you can get executed for espionage, terrorism, treason, federal murder, large-scale drug trafficking, or attempting to kill a court officer, juror, or witness.

Compare this to the State of Texas, which executed 35 people in 2014 alone and 1,414 since 1976.

If You’re Accused of a Federal Crime…

Know that it works much differently than state law. It’s important to have a criminal lawyer experienced and successful in federal law defending you.