Are You a Legal Professional?


After a criminal defendant is convicted or pleads guilty, a judge will decide on the appropriate punishment during the sentencing phase of a criminal case. In some circumstances, the judge is able to enhance or reduce a sentence based upon factors specific to the crime and the defendant. A sentence may include fines, incarceration, probation, suspended sentence, restitution, community service, and participation in rehabilitation programs. Learn more about sentencing, the kinds of sentences possible in criminal cases, and the factors considered by judges when determining a sentence.

Mandatory Sentences and "Three Strikes" Laws

Some states and all federal criminal statutes include mandatory sentencing guidelines that require judges to impose sentences uniformly. Mandatory sentencing schemes are intended to eliminate inconsistency in sentencing practices and often address a public perception of judicial leniency. "Three Strikes" laws are another sort of mandatory sentencing that has been put in place in the federal laws and about half of the states.

These laws provide for mandatory life imprisonment of felons convicted of three crimes where at least one was a serious violent felony. Mandatory sentencing systems and "Three Strikes" laws especially have been the subject of extensive debate. Questions have been raised about the effectiveness and fairness of these laws and challenges to their constitutionality have been brought, though to date none have been successful.

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 is released into the community but must satisfy certain conditions and abide by certain rules. If the defendant fails to comply with the terms of probation the judge may then revoke the probation and send the defendant to jail instead.

Similarly, with a suspended sentence a judge may postpone the imposition or execution of a sentence. If the suspended sentence is conditional this is dependent upon the defendant's fulfilling certain conditions, often enrollment in a substance abuse program. Learn more about probation, suspended sentences, the rights of those accused of violating the terms of the programs, and other issues that commonly arise in diversionary or alternative sentencing programs.

Fines and Restitution

Another alternative to incarceration involves the defendant paying their debt to society a little 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. Sometimes fines are given in place of jail time, particularly for minor crimes and first offenses.

At other times they may be ordered in addition to a jail term. Restitution is another kind of money payment made by the convicted, but in this case the money is paid to a victim in order to compensate for the damage they suffered. For example, a speeding ticket results in a fine collected by the court, while a graffiti artist is ordered to pay restitution to the owner of the building they defaced so that it can be repainted.

Learn About Sentencing