After a jury finds a defendant guilty of sexual assault, the case may (depending on the state jurisdiction) go to the judge for sentencing. Judges rely on several factors to determine a sentence. First, criminal statutes will usually set a range of punishments for sexual assault. This will often consist of a maximum and minimum prison term, including fines and other penalties.
Judges also examine aggravating and mitigating factors when deciding on the exact terms of the sentence. Aggravating factors are those factors such as a defendant's criminal history, the nature of the victim, or the use of violence that demand a harsher punishment. Mitigating factors, on the other hand, are circumstances that tend to support a more lenient sentence.
This article provides an overview of the various factors that determine sentencing for sexual assault convictions.
Sexual Assault Sentencing and Penalties: Differences Among the States
Just as every state has its own law concerning sexual assault, every state takes a different approach to sentencing people convicted of sexual assault. The federal courts also have their own set of sentencing rules.
For example, in California, a sexual assault conviction carries with it a range of possible sentences from 6 months or a year in the county jail up to 24, 36, or 48 months in prison, as well as a possible $10,000 fine. This type of sentence is known as "determinate" since it results in a specific term of years in prison. As mentioned above, a judge will examine the facts of the case, including aggravating and mitigating factors, in order to settle on the exact sentence.
In New York, sexual assault describes a broad range of criminal conduct, from the lowest degree of sexual misconduct, a class B misdemeanor, to the most severe categories of rape and aggravated sexual abuse, which are punished as class B felonies. The sentencing judge has the discretion to set the sentence, but the law binds the judge to impose a sentence within a certain range depending on the precise charge. Moreover, the sentence for any felony is an "indeterminate" one, which means that the judge does not set an exact term. Instead, the judge picks a range of years between the absolute minimum and the absolute maximum set by law. The defendant could serve the entire term or just the minimum amount depending on their behavior in prison and other factors. New York law sets the absolute minimum sentence for sexual assault felonies at one year, and the absolute maximum penalty at twenty-five years for the most serious offenses. Judges can choose any range that falls within those limits for the offense category.
In order to learn more about specific sentencing and penalties for sexual assault, consult the laws of the jurisdiction where the conviction took place. Many states now require completion of sex offender-specific counseling and therapy as a part of any probation or parole process, and every sexual assault conviction will potentially trigger sex offender registration requirements. Check out FindLaw's State Sexual Assault Laws guide for more information or find answers on our sexual abuse legal answers page.
Federal Sexual Assault Sentencing and Penalties
Federal law directs judges to examine a number of factors, including the defendant's criminal history and his or her acceptance of responsibility, when setting a punishment. The federal law criminalizing sexual assault sets a maximum sentence of twenty years in prison (or mandatory life imprisonment for repeat offenses against children), and also provides for fines. In addition, federal law provides that those convicted of sexual assault must compensate their victims for any expenses directly related to the crime. This can include costs for medical care, physical or occupational therapy, attorney's fees, lost wages, transportation, housing, and childcare expenses, along with any other losses caused by the crime.
Getting Legal Help with Your Sexual Assault Case
Sexual assault is a very serious crime with significant penalties and collateral consequences. If you have been charged with sexual assault, you have the constitutional right to legal representation, and you should speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney as early in the process as possible. After all, an attorney can help to sort out, and potentially challenge, any evidence against you.