Sentencing guidelines set maximum sentences and a minimum sentences that convicted defendants must serve. Some states and all federal criminal statutes include mandatory sentencing guidelines. These require judges to impose sentences uniformly.

After a guilty plea or conviction in a criminal trial, a sentencing judge will decide on the appropriate punishment in a criminal case. At the sentencing hearing, the judge can enhance a sentence based on aggravating factors. Or, in some circumstances, a judge may reduce a prison sentence based on mitigating factors specific to the crime and the defendant.

In criminal court, a sentence may include the following:

  • A prison term or suspended sentence
  • Probation or community service
  • Participation in rehabilitation programs
  • Fines or restitution

This article explains different sentencing options and the factors judges consider when determining an appropriate sentence. This includes the defendant's background, criminal history, and prior convictions (misdemeanor or felony offenses).

Mandatory Sentences and 'Three Strikes' Laws

Mandatory sentencing schemes aim to eliminate inconsistency in sentencing ranges and practices. They also address a public perception of judicial leniency.

"Three Strikes" laws are another sort of mandatory sentencing under federal law. They are used in about half of the states to punish repeat offenders. Federal law requires mandatory life imprisonment for felons convicted of three serious crimes meeting the following conditions:

  • At least one criminal offense is a serious violent felony
  • One conviction is a serious drug offense under the federal provision

Check your state's sentencing laws, as jurisdictions differ on what is a "serious violent crime" or "serious drug offense."

Mandatory sentencing systems have been the subject of extensive debate. Critics question the effectiveness and fairness of these laws. But the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Three Strikes rule because states have a valid interest in deterring criminals.

How Judges Determine Appropriate Sentences

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution restricts the courts from imposing cruel and unusual punishments. Each state has its own criminal law statutes and rules of criminal procedure outlining the factors judges can use to determine an appropriate sentence. Typically, this includes completing a presentence investigation by a probation officer.

The presentence report includes the following information:

  • The defendant's background, including their family history, health, education level, etc.
  • The defendant's criminal record, including any prior convictions, e.g., felony domestic violence
  • Classification of the crime, e.g., Class A felony, a crime punishable by 10 years up to life
  • Aggravating factors (circumstances increasing the seriousness of the offense), e.g., the age of the victim
  • Mitigating factors (reasons the defendant should receive leniency), e.g., mental illness or remorse

Some defendants will enter a guilty plea as part of a plea bargain. Here, their criminal defense attorney negotiates for a lesser sentence to avoid criminal charges with steep punishments.

Consider, for example, the death penalty (a crime punishable by death). An attorney may request life in prison in exchange for a guilty plea. But a less violent crime, such as possession of a controlled substance, may require minimum jail time and a drug treatment program.

Criminal statutes allow the trial court to use a sentencing enhancement, even if you commit an offense with a mandatory minimum. This increases the penalty in special circumstances, for example, if someone commits a hate crime. This is an offense that violates a victim's civil rights.

Suppose that someone gets convicted of first-degree murder in a jury trial. The prosecution can prove the defendant's motivation was their hostility towards the victim's sexual orientation. In that case, this will likely qualify for a hate crime enhancement and result in more prison time and fines.

Probation and Suspended Sentence

A judge may opt to sentence the defendant to probation or issue a suspended sentence. Probation is usually only available to first-time or low-risk offenders. The defendant gets released into the community but must satisfy certain conditions and abide by certain rules.

For example, a defendant must complete community service and have no new offenses. The judge may revoke the probation and send the defendant to jail if they fail to comply with the terms of probation.

Similarly, with a suspended sentence, a judge may postpone imposing the sentence. This depends on the defendant fulfilling certain conditions.

Consider, for example, enrolling in a substance abuse program. First-time offenders in the criminal justice system often qualify for alternative sentencing programs. This could be the case for someone convicted of driving under the influence (DUI).

Fines and Restitution

Another alternative sentence involves the defendant paying their debt to society more literally. Fines are payments made to the court. A criminal fine serves to punish the offender, help compensate the state for the costs of prosecution, and deter future criminal acts.

For example, a speeding ticket results in a fine collected by the court. Fines are common instead of jail time, particularly for minor infractions. But a judge can order fines in addition to a jail term.

Restitution is another kind of monetary payment made by the convicted defendant. In this case, the money is paid to a victim to compensate for their damage.

For example, a graffiti artist may pay restitution to the owner of the building they defaced to cover the repainting costs. Or a drunk driver who crashes into a victim's car may have to cover any costs not covered by insurance as part of restitution.

Talk to an Attorney About Your Criminal Sentencing Options

Meet with a qualified attorney to learn more about the options available in your case. You may have mitigating circumstances that could lessen potential penalties. Remember, a felony conviction does not have to equal prison time. Visit our attorney directory to find help near you.

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