The Difference Between Jail and Prison, and the Problem it Creates

Written by:
Courtney Barger (Law Student)

Jail and Prison are often used interchangeably, but they serve different purposes. The key difference: jails are intended for short sentences and temporary confinement while prisons are for felony sentencing longer than a year.

What are Jails?

Jails are generally operated by county governments under the county sheriff’s jurisdiction. They serve smaller populations than prisons and are designed for shorter stays. Arizona has a multitude of jails, at least one in each county. There are also smaller holding facilities that are still considered jails, operated by municipal governments. These facilities are used to hold people for a few hours or days before they are transferred to a larger jail.

At any given time, jails are home to two distinct populations. The first group consists of people who have been convicted of relatively minor crimes such as misdemeanors or violating their probation. The second group is innocent people. A large portion of the people held in jails are in the pre-trial stage and have either been denied bail or been unable to pay. Depending on the severity of their charge, these people may have no previous convictions.

Since the 1980’s the proportion of the jail population made up of pre-trial detainees has increased. The proportion used to be around 50% but has increased to about 75%. You can learn more about these statistics here.

What are Prisons?

Prisons are reserved for those convicted of felonies. It is possible to receive a jail sentence for more minor felonies, but a prison sentence is standard. Prisons tend to be much larger than jails and are operated at the state or federal level. Some prisons are privately owned. Arizona has 16 prisons, 6 are privately owned.

Prisons, while not pleasant places, offer more services to their population. They provide a variety of education including GED courses. Although it may seem counterintuitive, inmates can move more freely throughout prisons. They have jobs to complete and are allocated time in a large, outdoor yard.

The Problem with Jails:

Because they are designed for shorter stays, jails tend to have far fewer services than a standard prison. Inmates staying in jails have complained of inadequate medical care, lack of nutritional food, and inappropriate limitations on movement, like a lack of access to exercise. Inmates with a criminal history or individuals who expect to be convicted may be driven to accept a plea in order to transition from jail to prison. This motivation to leave jail as quickly as possible can mean they accept a plea that is less than favorable to the inmate.

There is another glaring problem with jails and their conditions: they detain innocent people. While it may be necessary in certain circumstances to detain someone before their conviction, the presumption of innocence means that they cannot be punished until their guilt has been proven. The poor conditions of jail serve as de facto punishment. This is one reason having an attorney present at a bond hearing can make such a significant difference. It can be the difference between being free before trial and having to remain in jail for months. If you are in need of criminal defense representation, check out our website at DoranJustice.com, and reach out to us at 602.675.4508 to schedule a free consultation with one of our criminal defense attorneys.

*This information is correct and up to date as of the day this article was written.


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