Criminal Sentencing

sentencingSentencing comes after the defendant has pled guilty or convicted at trial. In the sentencing stage of the criminal justice process, the question is no longer whether the defendant is guilty – that has already been determined. The issue here is how to punish the defendant for breaking the law. Court usually has full discretion of the terms of the sentence. Some jurisdictions have guidelines that serve as a reference for the sentencing court although they aren’t mandatory. Generally speaking, federal court is the only criminal court with mandatory minimum sentencing for crimes where the judge must sentence the defendant to a specific number of years depending on the severity of the crimes he committed.

Sentences for criminal convictions may include any combination of incarceration (in jail or prison, depending on the severity of the crime), community service, probation, restitution, fines and costs. This list is not all-inclusive, since judges have full discretion over the sentencing stage of the trial and some judges do have the habit of handing down non-traditional sentences instead of, or in addition to, more traditional punishments.

The sentencing process could be complicated and stressful even if you already plead guilty. An experienced and trained criminal defense attorney can guide you through the process and make sure that you receive the best sentencing possible. An attorney can also petition the court for alternative sentencing options that are unique to your case. Finally, having an attorney by your side during sentencing proceedings ensures that you are not sentenced more harshly than you deserve and that no options are left on the table.

Capital Punishment

The death penalty has been on the decline in the US since the 1950’s. Despite its increasing unpopularity in the latter half of the 20th century, it is still a legal penalty in 32 states and the military tribunal. Because of its drastic nature, only the most heinous crimes are punishable by the death penalty, such as terrorism, treason, and 1st degree murder.  The method of carrying out the death penalty varies state by state but the most applied method in recent years is lethal injection.

Jail or Prison

Jails are operated by local law enforcement and are used to keep defendants before posting bond, awaiting trial or to keep convicts who are serving misdemeanor jail sentences. Prisons, or penitentiaries as they called in the federal system, on the other hand, are used to house those convicted of felonies, including dangerous and violent offenders, sex offenders and others. Prison terms can range from short term up to lifelong incarceration.

Sentences of incarceration may be “determinate” where the sentence is a fixed duration (for example, one year in prison) or “indeterminate” where the sentence is merely a range of time (for example, 15 years to life). If you have multiple convictions, sentences also may run concurrent and at the same time or consecutive where one sentence starts when the other sentence ends.

Community Service

Community service is unpaid public work that a judge assigns to a defendant. The concept of community service is to have the defendant give back to the community he or she hurt by committing a crime. It also is used in an attempt to help rehabilitate defendants. Community service can be ordered in addition to incarceration, probation, fines and other penalties, but it is often given in lieu of jail time for minor offense and misdemeanors.


Probation may be ordered when the court believes the defendant does not deserve incarceration or as a part of a plea agreement. Probation allows the defendant to remain relatively free but only as long as the court’s conditions are observed. These conditions are often related to the crime committed such as mandatory drug screening, wearing a tracking anklet, or therapy sessions. Defendants on probation may have an active probation officer who checks on the probationer regularly, or they may be on self-regulated probation which is far more liberal. In either case, someone on probation must avoid violating the condition and laws. Otherwise they will be charge with a probation violation and may be sent to jail.

Common restrictions for probationers include the payment of fines or restitution, refraining from committing any crimes, staying away from alcohol and drugs, regular reporting to the probation officer, submitting to scheduled and random drug testing and avoiding certain places and people. Violating these restrictions would almost certainly means a trip to jail for the probationer. It may also negate any plea agreement the convict may have, resulting the defendant having to serve out the remaining of his sentence behind bars.

Restitution and Fines

Restitution is about making things right to the people who were hurt during or as a result of the crime committed. Fines, on the other hand, are paid to the state as a form of punishment and as an economic deterrent. Restitution is paid to victims or to the state’s restitution fund to directly compensate a victim’s loss. Stolen or damaged property, physical or mental injuries, medical expenses and even lost wages from death or incapacitation all may be part of a restitution order. The victim need not be one individual. In some cases, a defendant will be ordered to pay restitution for wrongs that touched a large group of people, such as investment fraud or Ponzi schemes.