After a defendant is convicted or pleads guilty, a judge will decide on the appropriate punishment (or sentence) during the sentencing phase of a criminal case. Criminal sentencing for criminal offenses can range from probation and community service to prison and even the death penalty. The following resources cover the various factors that influence sentencing, "three strikes" sentencing laws, mandatory minimum sentences, state-specific guidelines and more.
Criminal Sentencing Basics
Sentencing usually takes place almost immediately after convictions for minor infractions and misdemeanors, or when a defendant has pled guilty. In more complex criminal cases, such as those involving serious felonies, the sentencing judge usually receives input from the prosecutor, the defense, and the probation department (which prepares recommendations in a "pre-sentence report").
A judge will consider several factors in determining a criminal sentence, including:
- Whether the offender has any criminal history;
- Whether the offender was the main offender or an accessory (someone who assists the main offender) or;
- Whether the offender was under great personal stress or duress when he or she committed the crime;
- Whether anyone was injured or the crime was particularly likely to result in injury;
- Whether the offender was particularly cruel to a victim, or particularly destructive, vindictive, etc.; and
- Whether the offender displayed remorse or regret.
Choice of Sentences
Judges in most cases have a great deal of discretion when determining a sentence and have several sentencing alternatives from which to choose, from diversion to incarceration. Not every conviction means a trip to prison and alternative sentences can include:
- Suspended sentences;
- Fines or restitution;
- Community service;
- Deferred adjudication or pretrial diversion; and
Additionally, there are many different types of sentences. Multiple sentences can be served concurrently (at the same time) or consecutively (one after another), and single sentences could be deferred or suspended based on certain conditions.
While judges do have many criminal sentencing options, in some cases there are federal and state laws that provide for mandatory sentences. These laws require judges to impose identical sentences on all persons convicted of the same offense. Mandatory sentences reflect the efforts of state legislatures and Congress to address public concerns regarding judges’ leniency or inconsistency in criminal sentencing.
The most notable mandatory sentencing laws are the “Three Strikes” statutes, which provide for life in prison if a convicted felon has been convicted of a “serious violent felony” and has two or more previous convictions, one of which is another serious violent felony. While these laws have been criticized for being disproportionately harsh, most have been upheld as constitutional.
Charged With a Crime? You'll Probably Need an Attorney
As you can see, there are a number of sentences that could apply in your case. A good defense attorney can help argue the case for a lighter sentence, especially if this is a first-time offense. However, it's important to have a qualified criminal defense attorney involved in your case as early as possible because they can help to establish the evidence that may lead to more favorable criminal sentencing.