There are two major criminal justice systems in the United States that can lead to a person being imprisoned – the state criminal justice system and the federal system.  Being charged with a state crime in Texas means that a defendant will most likely be prosecuted for a violation of the Texas Penal Code.  In the federal system, defendants are most commonly prosecuted for violations of the U.S. Code, though in both systems, there are other statutes that have criminal implications.

Charging and Bail

Federal and state charges are brought in a similar manner – usually by a complaint, information, or indictment notifying the defendant of the nature of the accusation.  In Harris County, a defendant is afforded bail in most situations according to a bond schedule set by the courts.  In the federal system, however, a defendant must have a detention hearing where a magistrate makes a determination on a case-by-case basis as to whether a defendant will be given bail.

Court Settings and Trial

In Harris County, a defendant will often go to court once a month and attend a docket.  During docket, the defendant’s attorney meets with the prosecutor to discuss the case.  If the case is set for trial, a defendant may have several trial dates before the case actually proceeds to trial.  In the federal system, however, a defendant rarely goes to court unless for a hearing, pretrial conference, or trial.  If a criminal case is set for trial, it is likely that the case will go to trial on that date.


Sentencing and punishment in the state and federal systems are very different.  In state court, the prosecutors often exercise wide discretion in the types of plea bargains offered, and a defendant often knows exactly what he or she will receive from the judge in a plea-bargained case.  In federal court, however, sentences are heavily influenced by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and prosecutors generally cannot guarantee a specific sentence.  A sentence under the guidelines is a range of punishment a defendant may receive (e.g. 63-78 months).  Though the sentencing guidelines are no longer mandatory, judges must still consider them.  However, the court may vary or depart from the guidelines under certain circumstances.  In Houston, having a qualified Houston criminal attorney who understands the sentencing guidelines is essential to an effective defense in federal court.

© 2021 David A. Nachtigall, Attorney at Law, PLLC