Criminal sentencing refers to the legal process in which an individual is punished for a crime they have been found guilty of committing. The criminal sentencing phase is separate from the part of the criminal trial that is used to determine whether or not an individual or party is guilty or innocent of the crime they are being charged with.
Each state and jurisdiction is responsible for determining its own criminal sentencing guidelines. As such, how a crime may be sentenced could be influenced by the location of the crime, as well as the severity of the crime that the criminal defendants are alleged to have committed.
In most cases, the judge responsible for overseeing the criminal trial is the individual who will ultimately make the final criminal sentencing decision. However, there are some exceptions. For example, in any case that involves capital punishment, the jury will be present for both phases of such trials and be responsible for the sentencing portion of the trial.
During the sentencing portion of a criminal trial, additional evidence may be presented that was not allowed to be presented during the portion of the trial in which the defendant’s guilt or innocence was determined.
For instance, a person’s criminal history cannot be used as evidence to determine their guilt or innocence, but it may be introduced at the sentencing portion of the trial as evidence to determine appropriate sentencing. This is why repeat offenders typically end up with more severe criminal penalties than first-time offenders.
It is important to also note that there are many different levels of crimes. As such, there are also many different levels of potential criminal sentences. Traditionally, criminal punishment for committing a crime was having to pay a statutorily determined criminal fine or spend a set amount of time in jail or prison. However, judges today also have the power to order other types of alternative sentences.
Examples of alternative criminal sentences that a judge may order include, but are not limited to:
How Are Alternative Sentences Preferable to Traditional Punishments?
There are many reasons why a judge or jury may prefer alternative sentences over traditional punishments of criminal fines and imprisonment. One of the main advantages of alternative sentencing is that the individual that is being punished may remain a part of society and continue to provide for those around them if others are dependent on them for care.
Another main advantage is that alternative sentences are more flexible and allow the judge to tailor the punishment more narrowly towards the individual that was convicted of the crime. Alternative sentences allow a judge to better prescribe penalties appropriate for the crime committed.
For example, if the crime was a nonviolent crime, then a community corrections program may be more appropriate and tailored to that individual rather than a 1 time criminal fine and short jail sentence. The following is an expanded list of alternative sentences and their various advantages:
- Work Release Program: These programs generally allow the convicted person to work in the community during the day and return to the prison during non-working hours.
- This particular type of criminal sentence allows the convicted individual to begin to save money for when they are released from prison, as well as help them become re-integrated into the community;
- House Arrest and Community Service Programs: These programs offer several advantages to traditional criminal sentences or incarceration. One main advantage is that these programs often cost taxpayers less than it would to house an inmate in jail or prison.
- In fact, there are many estimates that conclude it is often 7 times more expensive to incarcerate a drug offender than to put that offender through a drug treatment program.
- These programs also help to keep families together and allow the offender to continue to help provide for his or her family while repaying their debt to society; and
- Juvenile Programs: Juvenile criminal offenders may learn important lessons and gain invaluable skills through various court and community rehabilitation programs that are available as alternative criminal sentences.
- Typically, a minor who is caught during the commission of their first crime is given a chance to rehabilitate in the hopes that the alternative sentencing will allow that minor to see why their crimes were harmful to their victims.
Are There Any Disadvantages of Alternative Sentencing?
There are numerous criticisms of alternative sentencing. The most significant criticism of alternative sentencing involves deterrence. Many people argue that harsh prison sentences are created to keep individuals from committing certain crimes. In other words, the rougher the penalty associated with the crime, the more an individual is deterred from committing that crime.
As such, if alternative sentences are readily available, then individuals may not be as deterred from committing a crime.
Another criticism of alternative sentencing is that the criminal penalty does not fit or is inappropriate given the crime that was committed. Alternative sentencing is often very different from standard criminal punishments. As such, a defendant given an alternative sentence may wonder why they have to wear a sign outside the store they stole from while other criminals who committed the same offense only receive fines and community service.
Because of the wide range of alternative sentences that may be ordered, alternative sentencing often gives rise to some inquiries about the equal protection promised by the Constitution. However, judges still often find numerous benefits of alternatives to incarceration. Thus, judges are more often ordering alternative sanctions, such as community service, rather than more traditional criminal punishments of imprisonment and criminal fines.
Who Will Not Qualify for Alternative Sentences?
As mentioned above, alternative sentencing is typically most available to individuals who are first-time criminal offenders or have been convicted of a nonviolent crime. As such, alternative sentencing is generally not available for violent criminals, individuals facing multiple criminal charges, or individuals who are known as habitual offenders.
Do I Have to Serve an Alternative Sentence?
Once again, alternative sentences are alternative punishments to the traditional and statutory punishments that are associated with the crime committed. As such, if an individual chooses to accept the traditional punishment rather than the alternative sentence offered by the Court, they may freely do so. In other words, alternative sentences are not mandatory.
However, this means that the individual will not be able to accept the alternative sentence down the road.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
As can be seen, there are numerous alternative sentences that may be available during the criminal sentencing portion of a criminal trial. Further, certain alternative sentences may not always be available for every criminal charge. As such, if you have been charged with a crime, it is in your best interests to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney.
An experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to help you build a strong legal defense for the criminal charges brought against you. Further, they will also be able to help you assert any available legal defenses that may lessen the charges associated with the crime you have allegedly committed or have the charges brought against you dropped altogether.
If the charges are unable to be dropped, a criminal defense attorney is essential in helping you receive alternative criminal sentencing, such as supervised probation. Finally, an experienced criminal defense attorney will also be able to represent you at any in-person criminal proceeding.