Massachusetts Courts, State Prison and House of Correction

An overview of the criminal court system in Massachusetts.  What is the difference between the state prison and the house of correction?

In Massachusetts, there are two kinds of trial courts that hear criminal cases: the superior courts and the district (or in Boston, “municipal”) courts. There are also two kinds of jails: state prisons and county houses of correction.

The Massachusetts district courts can only hear cases that include possible house of correction sentences (or no jail time at all).  If a crime can be punished only by state prison time, it must be tried in the Massachusetts superior court.  On the other hand, if a crime includes either a state prison sentence or a house of correction sentence, it can be heard in the Massachusetts district court.

A Massachusetts district court may never sentence a person to the state prison.

The critical difference between state prison and the house of correction is the maximum sentence allowed for each institution. A sentence to the house of correction can never exceed two-and-one-half-years for a single offense. A sentence to the state prison can be for any term of years up to and including a life sentence. In either case, sentences cannot exceed the maximum penalty permitted for any specific crime in the Massachusetts General Laws.

Our criminal code is written in the Massachusetts General Laws by our legislature, and each crime includes a maximum sentence that a trial judge may not exceed. Some crimes include state prison sentences. Others include only house of correction sentences. Others do not permit a judge to sentence a person to any period of incarceration, but permit periods of probation or monetary fines. For example, our General Laws indicate that the crime of assault and battery can be punished by no more than two-and-one-half years in the house of correction, probation and/or a fine of $1000.

A superior court judge has the broadest sentencing authority. She can sentence a convicted person to either the house of correction for as much as two-and-one-half years or to state prison for any amount of time including life in prison, depending on the maximum penalty permitted for the particular crime.

By contrast, a district court judge can sentence a convicted person only to the house of correction and for no more than two-and-one-half years for a single offense. Any judge can sentence a person to probation or to pay a fine if the conviction allows for that kind of punishment.

As a practical matter, the majority of criminal cases in Massachusetts are heard in the district courts.  These courts are far busier than the Massachusetts superior courts, with a heavier caseload and more courthouses in session.  Pretrial sessions in the district court ordinarily run through the entire day with hundreds of cases called each week.  

Contact us if you have any questions about district court or superior court practice in Massachusetts.