What's the Difference Between a State and a Commonwealth?

If you grew up in the United States, you probably have the 50-states song burned into some indelible part of your memory. (If you’re like me, it’s the same place where a song made up of 62 prepositions sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and the entirety of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which for some inane reason I was forced to memorize for seventh grade Social Studies class, also live.) What was not taught to me in school, however, was the simple difference between a state and a commonwealth—and all of the nuances the term “commonwealth” encapsulates. Less Schoolhouse Rock, sure, but just as important.

Let’s get to the first definition of commonwealth. Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Kentucky are all commonwealths. So what makes them different from the rest of the 50 states? Literally nothing. They are commonwealths simply because their state constitutions say they’re commonwealths. Turns out you can just slap on the term “commonwealth” to your name, like “The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” and you’re a commonwealth! Who knew. 

So why these states in particular? According to the Massachusetts state website, “In the era leading to 1780, a popular term for a whole body of people constituting a nation or state (the body politic) was the word ‘Commonwealth.’” Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Massachusetts all adopted constitutions between the years 1776 and 1780, so we can assume that calling yourself a “commonwealth” during that era was somewhat in vogue. Kentucky didn't call itself a commonwealth until its Third Constitution of 1850, so I guess they were just late to the party.

However, this version of “commonwealth” is clearly different than the commonwealth that is Puerto Rico, considering the above examples are states and Puerto Rico is not. Both Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands, a group of 22 islands in the western Pacific Ocean, are also commonwealths, but with different relationships with the United States than the states that happen to also call themselves commonwealths. According to Merriam Webster, they are territories that have “local autonomy” but are “voluntarily united with the United States.” Under this arrangement, Puerto Rico has political autonomy on local matters, such as elections, taxation, education, health, housing, and language, while the U.S. government controls more external-facing affairs like citizenship, immigration, customs, defense, currency, foreign trade, and diplomacy. Residents are U.S. citizens, but do not pay federal taxes and only have non-voting representatives in the U.S. Congress. They also cannot vote for president; residents of Puerto Rico have no votes in the Electoral College, while residents of the North Mariana Islands who have lived on the U.S. mainland can vote in the most recent state that they lived in. 

So, in short: “commonwealth” can mean something that is the exact same thing as a state, but also something that is decidedly not the same thing as a state. Cool, guys. Definitely makes sense. 

But wait! There’s more. All of these various versions of commonwealths should not be confused with the Commonwealth, with a capital C. The Commonwealth is made up a collection of countries formerly under British rule, as well as other countries who voluntarily opt into it (such as Mozambique, which was not a former British colony but decided to join in anyways). It’s composed of 53 countries and represents around 30% of the world’s population. (And if you'd like to learn more about the differences between the Great Britain, England, and the United Kingdom, I have just the thing for you.)

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What's the Difference Between a Cop, Sheriff, and State Trooper?

No matter how you feel about law enforcement these days, let’s face it: most of the time, we try to follow the law, and we expect the people in our lives to follow the law, too. The presence and importance of the law is why we need people in our society who make sure that it’s upheld—and in America, this makes for a system that’s notoriously difficult to navigate. Exhibit A: What’s the actual difference between a copsheriff, and state trooper? Let’s get into it.

The term “cop”—or police officer—can refer to a patrol officer, a correctional officer, or a sheriff’s deputyPatrol officers are the men and women in the classic blue uniforms, whose jobs include the pursuit and arrest of criminals, response to emergency and non-emergency calls, and enforcement of motor vehicle and criminal laws. Patrol officers can also be appointed to a special unit, such as motorcycle, canine corps, or SWAT teams.

The major difference between a patrol officer and a sheriff’s deputy is their area of jurisdiction. Sheriff’s deputiesspecifically operate within a county, and their responsibilities are quite similar to those of patrol officers. Patrol officers usually work within the jurisdiction of a city or town, though they can also work for a state, county, hospital, college, transit district, or any other governmental organization that has the ability to create its own law-enforcement branch. 

Correctional officers have a much different set of responsibilities than their other cop counterparts. They’re specifically in charge of enforcing the rules inside a state prison or jail: overseeing the inmates as they go about their daily routines, resolving conflicts, and inspecting the facilities to prevent escape. 

Now, let’s move onto the role of the sheriff. A sheriff is an elected official and is essentially the CEO of the sheriff’s department. Most sheriffs operate under the county government—in fact, the only state without sheriffs is Alaska, which has no counties.  

The word “sheriff” is actually a portmanteau of “shire reeve,” which was the tax collector in medieval England. These days, some sheriffs are still the tax collectors for their counties. But sheriff responsibilities can vary greatly from state to state: In some states, the position is largely ceremonial, and essentially just includes serving papers and providing security for the courts. In other states, the sheriff is also in charge of the county jail. And most states look to the sheriff’s office to provide general law-enforcement services (so, police officer–type services) to cities that don’t have their own police forces or to unincorporated parts of the county.

Unlike cops, who usually work for the city, or sheriffs, who work for the county, state troopers work for the state. They serve as highway patrol or as part of state-wide police agencies. You can tell who they are by their brown uniforms, which have star-shaped badges and patches to indicate their rank, and their large, wide-brimmed hats.

And for a BONUS ROUND: What about marshals and rangers? A marshal is an enforcement officer of the court and provides security for the court and court staff. Marshals can also be in charge of serving subpoenas and arrest warrants. Rangers, at least in the state-level-officer sense, are limited to Texas, where they’re the top of the state police force. Many states also have park or forest rangers that either act as the police force for their governmental subdivisions or as naturalist or conservation officers.

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What's the Difference Between Jail and Prison?

You can’t spell "correctional facility" without "correct"—and while there’s a lot that’s wrong with the criminal-justice system in this country, we can at least get our terminology right. Exhibit A: jail versus prison. Both are correctional facilities that are used to incarcerate people charged with or convicted of a crime, but the similarities stop there. Let’s get into the differences.

jail is a temporary, short-term detainment center where an individual waits for a trial and sentencing. It’s occupied by people who have just been arrested, who are waiting to post bail, or who are unable to post bail and are waiting for a trial. It also can be where people convicted of smaller crimes—usually misdemeanors—serve a shorter sentence, typically less than one year. Jails are run by local law enforcement or local agencies, and are typically smaller than prisons in both size and infrastructure.

Prisons are where inmates go after getting sentenced for longer-term imprisonment, usually for more serious crimes. They're operated by either the state government or the Federal Bureau of Prisons; people who have been convicted of breaking a state law are sent to state prisons, and people who have been convicted of breaking a federal law are sent to federal prisons. Both prison types are much larger operations than jails; they house many more inmates and are generally set up with more infrastructure and resources suited to longer-term detention. 

On a related note: it’s Giving Tuesday, and if this subject is of interest to you, I’d encourage you to check out the organization Esperanza, which works with families to help young people who are court-involved get back on track towards a positive future. And if you missed Meek Mill’s story in The New York Times yesterday, give it a read, along with this profile of Larry Krasner, the Philadelphia district attorney, from The New York Times Magazine

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What's the Difference Between a Lawyer and Attorney?

In the United States, the terms “lawyer” and “attorney” are usually used interchangeably. 


However, according to LawyerEdu, there is a small—but important—distinction. A lawyer is someone who has graduated law school, whereas an attorney is a lawyer who has passed the bar exam and is licensed to practice law in a given jurisdiction. 


An attorney is legally qualified to practice law in court; a lawyer may or may not. All attorneys are lawyers, but all lawyers are not attorneys. 


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