While it may not seem to make much difference from the outside, whether a drug crimes suspect is charged in state or federal court can be very important. A guilty verdict could result in prison time in either venue. But federal courts generally rely on federal sentencing guidelines that have become increasingly harsh over the years as politicians seek to portray themselves as "tough on crime."
Though the guidelines are not mandatory, federal judges often closely rely on them. As a result, the defendant's individual circumstances are often not taken into account when the court passes down sentence, which could include decades of incarceration.
At least two of three Pittsburgh-area people recently arrested and accused of drug and weapons charges will now face federal charges. This can happen even after state-level prosecutors have filed charges and involves those charges being withdrawn and federal prosecutors substituting their own charges. Reasons behind this switch can include the amount of drugs authorities claim are involved, which appears to be the case here.
One of the most immediate consequences for the defendants, who were arrested in April, appears to be the nature of their detention. One of the defendants was being held on $750,000 bond but is now under federal detention, which could make it more difficult for him to gain his release. That man could face a mandatory 20-year prison sentence if found guilty.
The third defendant has not yet had his case transferred to federal court. That decision is not expected until next month, though observors believe he will also face federal charges.
Source: KDKA-TV, "Penn Hills Drug Suspects Facing Federal Charges," Harold Hayes, May 20, 2013