Types of Criminal Sentences

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

Although there can be variations, there are basically 3 phases to a criminal case when a person is convicted or pleads guilty: (1) arrest; (2) conviction or a plea agreement; and (3) sentencing. Probably of most interest to the defendant is the sentencing phase. In fact, whether or not a defendant accepts a plea deal is often based on the sentence that's on the table in exchange for the defendant's admission of guilt. It's important to realize, however, that sentences can be carried out in a variety of ways.

Types of Criminal Sentences: An Overview

Sentences can vary in the way they are implemented or carried out. The following list provides a brief overview of the different types of criminal sentences that may imposed on a person who has been found guilty of a crime.

  • A concurrent sentence is served at the same time as another sentence imposed earlier or at the same proceeding.
  • A consecutive (or cumulative) sentence occurs when a defendant has been convicted of several counts, each one constituting a distinct offense or crime, or when a defendant has been convicted of several crimes at the same time. The sentences for each crime are then "tacked" on to each other, so that each sentence begins immediately upon the expiration of the previous one.
  • A deferred sentence occurs when its implementation is postponed until some later time.
  • A determinate sentence is the same as a fixed sentence: It's for a fixed period of time.
  • A final sentence puts an end to a criminal case. It's distinguished from an interlocutory or interim sentence.
  • An indeterminate sentence, rather than stating a fixed period of time for imprisonment, instead declares that the period shall be "not more than" or "not less than" a certain prescribed duration of time. The authority to render indeterminate sentences is usually granted by statute in several states.
  • A life sentence represents the disposition of a serious criminal case, in which the convicted person is sentenced to spending the remainder of their life in prison.
  • A mandatory sentence is created by state or federal statutes and represents the rendering of a punishment for which a judge has/had no room for discretion. Generally it means that the sentence may not be suspended and that no probation may be imposed, leaving the judge with no alternative but the "mandated" sentence.
  • A maximum sentence represents the outer limit of a punishment, beyond which a convicted person may not be held in custody.
  • A minimum sentence represents the minimum punishment or the minimum time a convicted person must spend in prison before becoming eligible for parole or release.
  • A presumptive sentence exists in many states by statute. It specifies an appropriate or "normal" sentence for each offense to be used as a baseline for a judge when handing out a punishment. The statutory presumptive sentence is considered along with other relevant factors, such as aggravating or mitigating circumstances, in determining the actual sentence. Most states have statutory "presumptive guidelines" for major or common offenses.
  • A straight or flat sentence is a fixed sentence without a maximum or minimum.
  • A suspended sentence actually has two different meanings. It may refer to a withholding or postponing of pronouncing a sentence following a conviction or it may refer to the postponing of the execution of a sentence after it has been pronounced

Learn More About Types of Criminal Sentences by Speaking to a Lawyer

If you've been arrested and charged with a crime, or even if you've recently been convicted, knowing the types different types of criminal sentences is of paramount importance. While only a judge has the power to impose your sentencing terms, you aren't without options. Speak with a local criminal defense attorney today to understand how sentencing may work in your specific case.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified criminal lawyer to make sure your rights are protected.

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution