Factors Considered in Determining Sentences Overview
Judges, not juries, determine punishments for a crime (in capital punishment cases, the jury usually decides whether to recommend death or life in prison).
The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, provides that "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." In addition to the sentencing prohibitions contained in the Constitution, Title 18 of the United States Code, Part II (Criminal Procedure), Chapters 227 (Sentences), 228 (Death Sentence), and 232 (Miscellaneous Sentencing Provisions) also govern sentencing in federal courts. Similarly, state court sentencing procedures are governed by state laws and constitutions as discussed below.
Aggravating and Mitigating Circumstances
Most crimes are specifically enumerated in constitutions or statutes, and the provision that identifies the specific crime will also identify the appropriate punishment. For example, a statute may read, "Violation of this statute constitutes a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine not to exceed $500 or imprisonment not to exceed 30 days, or both." Given this range of potential punishment, a judge will then consider certain "aggravating" or "mitigating" circumstances to determine where along the prescribed spectrum a particular criminal's punishment should fall. Common factors considered by judges include:
Defendant's Own Words
Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32(a), before imposing a sentence, the court must afford counsel an opportunity to speak on behalf of the defendant. The court will address the defendant personally and ask him if he wishes to make a statement in his own behalf and to present any information in mitigation of punishment. The attorney for the government will have an equivalent opportunity to speak to the court. Similar provisions are contained in most state procedural statutes and rules. In many state courts, a victim or the survivors of a victim may also have the opportunity to address the court and recommend leniency or strictness for the sentence.
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Have Questions About Sentencing? Ask an Attorney
While the jury may have decided your guilt or innocence, only the judge will determine your sentence. There are a number of mitigating factors that a judge can take into account when deciding the appropriate punishment for you, should you be convicted. Speak to a local criminal defense attorney to learn more about how sentencing laws work in your state and to discuss your case.