If a person has been convicted of a crime, they may face various possible punishments. In some cases, more than one type of punishment may be used. This is the case, for example, when a person is convicted of driving under the influence (DUI). A person convicted of DUI may have to pay a fine, spend time in jail, have their driver’s license revoked for some time, and be required to attend DUI school.
Each state has its own criminal laws and punishments for crimes. But there are similarities among the laws of the respective states. In addition, the federal government has a criminal code defining federal crimes and their punishments. The various punishments that follow from the conviction of a criminal offense are discussed below.
What Is Incarceration?
Incarceration, also referred to as “imprisonment” or “spending time behind bars,” is one of the first punishments people think of when they think of “criminal punishment.” Ordering offenders to spend time in jail or state or federal prison separates them from the law-abiding segments of society.
Not every crime is punishable by a term of incarceration. Some misdemeanor offenses and even some felonies can be punished by a term of no more than 6 months in jail or less. As a practical matter, often jail time is not imposed.
The length of imprisonment in jail or prison depends on several factors. These would include the nature of the crime, whether the offender can get credit for time served while awaiting sentencing, and whether they have a criminal record that shows prior criminal offenses.
Generally, more serious crimes are punished by longer sentences of imprisonment, and less serious offenses may not be punished by any time behind bars at all. If a person has a criminal record that shows prior convictions, they are likely to be sentenced to a longer term of imprisonment if imprisonment is a punishment for the crime of which they are convicted.
Determining the length of a person’s prison sentence can be complicated. The first factor is what the state or federal law prescribes as possible punishments if the crime is a federal criminal offense. Often the punishment is a range of amounts, of money if punishment is the payment of a fine, or of time if the punishment is a term in jail or prison. The sentencing judge must determine what amount of money or time is appropriate given all the circumstances.
The federal criminal justice system has a somewhat complicated system of federal sentencing guidelines that judges in federal courts must use when they sentence a person convicted of a federal crime.
What Is the Death Penalty?
One of the most well-known and severe punishments that a person could face is, of course, the death penalty. The death penalty is rarely used as punishment for the most heinous crimes. It has become increasingly controversial in recent years.
The death penalty is only available in certain cases. There are certain stringent requirements for imposing the death penalty and certain limitations on when it can be used. Not all states offer the death penalty, however, and they may prescribe a life without parole as an alternative to this punishment.
While the death penalty has been eliminated in some states, e.g., Maryland, it is still legal in others, e.g., Florida. The death penalty can also be imposed for certain crimes under certain circumstances under federal criminal law.
What Are Parole and Probation?
Parole and probation are similar in ways but used in different circumstances. Both punishments provide ways to avoid serving time in jail and are conditioned on a person’s behavior. Both of these forms of punishment involve a supervised or conditioned release or avoidance of jail or prison time. The offender must maintain certain eligibility conditions, such as regular meetings with a supervising parole or probation officer.
Where they differ is in the path a person takes to get to parole and probation. Probation is part of a sentence that a judge imposes on a defendant after they are convicted at their sentencing hearing. Instead of going to jail, the offender is released back into the community; however, they must follow strict rules to keep them from committing another crime. If they fail to follow the rules and violate the conditions of probation, they can be sentenced to a term of imprisonment.
On the other hand, a parole board grants parole after an offender has served some time in a state or federal prison. It is often a reward tied to the person’s good behavior while imprisoned. A person allowed to leave prison on parole must also observe a set of restrictions on their behavior. If they do not violate the conditions of their parole, they can be returned to prison.
What Are Fines and Restitution?
Fines are sometimes ordered for less serious offenses, such as minor drug possession or shoplifting offenses, and are paid to the state, the government entity that prosecuted the crime, whether the offender’s local county or the federal government. Fines can have a wide range of dollar amounts depending on the crime charged.
Restitution is intended to go to the victim to “make them whole and reimburse them for the financial loss they may have suffered. Or it might go to a state restitution fund. Examples of restitution can include returning stolen property or compensating victims for out-of-pocket expenses related to the crime.
Both fines and restitution can be combined with other forms of punishment for the same offense. For example, an offender may be ordered to pay a fine and serve time in prison as punishment for the same crime.
What Is Community Service?
Community service is an alternative form of punishment that requires an offender to perform a certain number of hours of unpaid work in the community. Community service is commonly combined with other punishments, such as fines or restitution.
Many states offer the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program (SWAP), which is related to community service and is intended to ease the jail overcrowding problem. In SWAP programs, non-violent offenders can perform community service and work on public works projects to pay their debt to society. Activities in SWAP programs include projects such as cleaning parks, graffiti removal, and highway cleanup.
What Is Alternative Sentencing?
Alternative sentencing involves just about anything besides incarceration, which can offer a wide variety of options for criminal punishments. There are many types of alternative sentencing, including:
- House Arrest: House arrest or home detention means that an offender is confined to their home, except for certain approved activities, such as going to work, school, or counseling sessions;
- Tracking Devices: These are such things as ankle monitors that allow police to monitor a person’s whereabouts;
- Weekend Jail Time: An offender can go to work or school and serve their time on weekends only;
- Work Release: Defendants may be released from jail during the day to continue their employment or obtain employment while serving their sentence; and
- Treatment: This might be treatment for a drug or alcohol problem or education about anger management.
What Is Restorative Justice?
Restorative justice is an alternative to the current system of criminal justice. It tries to address crime more holistically. It is based on the recognition that victims, the community, and offenders are all adversely affected by crime. It uses an alternative process that is a kind of diversion. All parties to a criminal offense, the victim, the perpetrator, and a community representative, work together collegially to “restore” justice. The needs of the victim are recognized and addressed.
The offender is theoretically reintegrated into the community and its values. The perpetrator is supposed to be enabled to take responsibility for their action. The community should benefit when the offender is reintegrated into a community that supports both the offender and the victim.
Practically, the victim, the offender, and a neutral mediator meet. The victim and offender can speak without interruption and say what they feel and need. The offender is supposed to take responsibility for their action, express remorse, and apologize in public and in detail.
The parties are then supposed to agree on the actions the offender can take to meet the needs of the victim, repair the harm they have done and prevent new offenses. Currently, some 45 states now allow the use of restorative justice in some criminal cases.
What Are Diversion Programs?
Diversion programs are intended to “divert” people out of the criminal system, which can help to ease jail overcrowding and provide people with an alternative way to pay their debt to society while possibly avoiding future criminal conduct.
Diversion programs may include counseling, education, vocational training, and workshops. If a person completes the program, the criminal charges against them are dropped. If a person has ever had to take a driver’s education course because of a speeding ticket, then they have probably been part of a diversion program.
In exchange for completion of the course, the person’s speeding charge is dropped, and they do not end up experiencing the worst punishment, i.e., an increase in their auto insurance premium.
Do I Need the Help of a Lawyer with My Criminal Charge?
If you have been accused of or charged with a crime, you want to consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. The criminal justice system can be complicated, and you want a clear idea of what to expect and your options.
The right attorney can help you protect your rights, guide you through the system, and represent you in court to help you get the best possible outcome for your case.