If you have been charged with or convicted of a crime, you may face a variety of punishments. In some cases, combinations of punishments are also used, such as prison time, probation, and fines. These can vary by state, as well as the exact type of crime involved. The various types of criminal punishments are discussed below.

What is Incarceration?

Incarceration is one of the first punishments people think of when they hear “criminal punishment.” Ordering offenders to spend time in jail separates them from the law-abiding portions of society. The length of the jail sentence depends on several factors, including the nature of the crime, whether the offender is able to get credit for time served while awaiting sentencing, and whether they have a prior criminal record. 

Determining the length of a person’s prison sentence can be fairly complicated. If you are facing jail time, you may want to consult an experienced criminal defense attorney to advise you of your rights and represent you in court.

In many cases, incarceration can be combined with some of the other criminal punishments listed below, such as fines, parole, and community service.

What is the Death Penalty?

One of the most well-known and most severe punishments that a person could possibly face is the death penalty. This criminal punishment is extremely limited, and has become increasingly controversial in recent years. 

The death penalty is only available in certain cases, where certain requirements must be met in order to even consider this punishment as an option. Not all states offer the death penalty, however, and may offera sentence of life without parole as an alternative to this punishment.

What are Parole and Probation?

Parole and probation may sound similar, but they are different punishments. Both punishments provide ways to avoid serving time in jail, and both are conditioned on a person’s behavior (meaning if you behave accordingly, you’re fine; but if you mess it up, you will go to jail). Both of these forms of punishment usually take the form of what is called a supervised or conditioned release. The offender will have to maintain certain conditions for eligibility, such as regular meetings with a supervising officer. 

Where they differ, though, is in the path you take to get there. Probation is part of a sentence that a judge gives you at the time punishment is decided. Instead of going to jail, the offender is released back into the community–but they must follow a strict set of rules, intended to keep them from committing another crime. Parole, on the other hand, is granted by a parole board after you have served some (perhaps quite a bit of) jail time. (In some contexts, people may refer to parole as “getting out on good behavior.”)

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 it’s your local county or the federal government). Depending on the crime charged, fines can have a wide range of dollar amounts.

Restitution is intended to go either to the victim (to restore or “make whole” the victim of the crime), or 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 as well as 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 (kind of like a volunteer, except it’s required by the court). Community service is commonly combined with other punishments, such as fines or restitution. 

Many areas offer what is called the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program (SWAP), which is related to community service and is intended to ease the problem of jail overcrowding. In SWAP programs, non-violent offenders are allowed to perform community service and work on public works projects in order 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 or home detention: results in being confined to your home, with the exception of certain approved activities (such as work, school, or counseling sessions);
  • Tracking devices: usually ankle monitors that allow police to monitor your whereabouts;
  • Weekend jail time: preferable to spending long stretches in jail;
  • Work release: defendants may be released from jail during the day to continue their employment or obtain employment while serving their sentence; and
  • Drug or alcohol treatment programs.

What Are Diversion Programs?

Diversion programs are intended to “divert” people out of the criminal system, also helping to ease jail overcrowding and provide people with an alternative way to get things back on track. 

Diversion programs often include counseling, education classes, vocational training, and workshops. If you successfully complete the program, then the criminal charges will be dropped. If you’ve ever had to take a driver education course because of a traffic ticket, you have probably been part of a diversion program.

Do I Need a Lawyer If I’m Facing Criminal Punishments?

If you have been accused of or charged with a crime, it is in your best interests to talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. The criminal justice system can be fairly complicated, and you will want to have a clear idea of what to expect. 

The right attorney can help you protect your rights, guide you through the nuances of the system, and represent you in court to help you get the best possible outcome for your case.