What is the difference between Jail and Prison in Colorado?

At Path Forward Legal, we help people understand the charges against them and the possible penalties they face if charged with a crime. We’re often asked if someone will go to prison if they are convicted. When we can answer “no,” it’s a great thing. For most crimes, alternatives to prison exist. However, prison or jail is an important part of the criminal legal system. It’s crucial to understand what is the difference between jail and prison, if you’re facing hard time.

Jail: Short-Term and Awaiting Trial

Jails in Colorado are local facilities typically operated by local government agencies such as county sheriff’s departments or local law enforcement. They primarily serve two functions:

  1. Holding Inmates Awaiting Trial: Individuals who have been arrested and charged with a crime. They could be waiting for a bail hearing, or they could be in jail because they can’t afford bail. They have not been convicted of a crime.
  2. Serving Short-Term Sentences: Jails house individuals convicted of minor crimes or misdemeanors. These sentences are usually less than a year.

Someone sentenced to jail will typically be held in the county where the offense occurred.

Prison: Long-Term for More Serious Crimes

Prisons, in contrast, are designed for longer-term incarceration and are managed the Department of Corrections. Prison is also referred to as “DOC time.” Prison requires:

  1. A felony conviction: Prisons house individuals convicted of felonies. These sentences are usually more than a year.
  2. A DOC sentence: The sentencing order will identify a sentence to the Department of Corrections, not jail.

Someone sentenced to prison in Colorado will typically be sent to DRDC, the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center. Women are sent to DRWF, the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. From there, they are sent to a facility that could be anywhere in the state. More information on the intake process can be found on the DOC’s website.

It’s important to note that one cannot be sentenced to a federal prison for a state crime.

Legal Path: Misdemeanor vs. Felony Sentences

  • Misdemeanor Convictions: Lead to a jail sentence. Examples include minor theft or minor assault.
  • Felony Convictions: More severe, leading to prison sentences. Examples include serious violent crimes or major thefts.

Federal Crimes and Federal Prison

Federal crimes, which violate federal law, are prosecuted at the federal level and include offenses like large-scale drug trafficking. Convictions here result in sentences in federal prisons.

Alternatives to Prison and Reducing Prison Time

In Colorado, there are alternatives to prison time and ways to reduce the length of a prison sentence:

  1. Community Corrections: These programs aim to rehabilitate offenders in the community. They include halfway houses, work release programs, and community restitution centers. These alternatives focus on reintegration into society and are often used for those with substance abuse issues or as a transition from prison back to community life. You can be sent to ComCorr even if you’ve been sentenced to DOC time.
  2. Substance Abuse Programs: Participation in approved substance abuse programs can sometimes reduce prison time. These programs address the root causes of criminal behavior related to substance abuse.
  3. Vocational Programs: Involvement in vocational training can aid in reducing prison time. These programs prepare inmates for employment post-release, aiming to reduce recidivism.
  4. Good Behavior: Inmates can reduce their prison time through good behavior.


Understanding the difference between jail and prison in Colorado is crucial for navigating the criminal justice system. Jails are for those awaiting trial or serving short sentences for minor offenses, while prisons are for longer sentences associated with felonies. Federal prisons are designated for federal crimes. Alternatives like community corrections, substance abuse programs, and vocational training can play a significant role in reducing prison time and aiding rehabilitation.

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