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Criminal Sentencing

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. 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.

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:

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.

Sentencing In-Depth

While judges do have many 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.

Each state has their own state sentencing guidelines, which cover mandatory minimum sentences and the use of parole and probation issues.

More Information

Each criminal case is unique and local sentencing laws can vary. Therefore, determining what sentence a court may impose can often be difficult. If you’ve been charged with or convicted of a crime, you might want to consult with an experienced criminal attorney in your area. For more general information on this topic, you can also visit FindLaw’s criminal law section.

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