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What Are Criminal Punishments?

If you are convicted of a crime, there are a wide range of punishments you could face. You could face a combination of punishments, including incarceration (jail time), probation, and fines.


Probably the best known punishment for breaking the law is being locked up in a jail. The length of time you will spend in jail will depend on many factors, including if you are able to get jail credit for time served and whether or not you have a criminal record. Determining the length of a prison sentence is a complicated matter and an experienced criminal defense lawyer can advise you of your rights.

The Death Penalty

The most severe punishment that you could possibly face is the death penalty. The death penalty is very limited and is only available in certain cases. Also, not all states have the death penalty. As an alternative, the states without the death penalty may offer life without parole.

Parole and Probation

Other common forms of punishment are parole and probation. Both parole and probation are ways to avoid serving time in jail and both are conditioned on good behavior (meaning if you screw up you will go to jail). They both usually take the form of a supervised or conditioned release. Parole is granted by a parole board after you have served some (if not a lot of) jail time. Probation is part of the sentence that a judge gives you. To learn more about parole and/or probation, click here.

Fines and Restitution

Sometimes a judge will order you to pay fines if you are convicted. Fines are common for less serious offenses (such as minor drug possession and shoplifting). Fines are paid to the state (the local or federal government that prosecuted the crime). You could also be ordered to pay restitution. Restitution goes to either the victim or a state restitution fund. Examples of restitution include returning or replacing stolen or damaged property and compensating victims for medical costs. Both fines and restitution may be combined with other punishments, such as incarceration.

Community Service

A judge can order that you perform a certain number of hours of unpaid work in the community, called "community service," as a form of restorative justice. It is common for community service to be ordered in addition to other punishments. Many places have what is called the Sheriff's Work Alternative Program (SWAP), which is related to community service. In SWAP, you will pay your debt to society through labor and by performing services in the community. SWAP will often involve graffiti removal, trash removal, and highway cleanup.

Alternative Sentencing

Alternative sentences are anything besides incarceration. There are many types of alternative sentences, including the following:

  • House arrest or home detention - you will be confined to you home, except for approved activities such as work, school, and counseling
  • Tracking devices - usually anklets that allow police to monitor you whereabouts
  • Weekend jail time
  • Drug or alcohol treatment programs

Diversion Programs

It is possible that you will be "diverted" out of the criminal system. This happens through diversion programs, which often include counseling, education classes, vocational training, and workshops. If you successfully complete the program, the criminal charges will be dropped. Eligibility requirements vary from state to state.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Anytime you are accused of a crime, you should consult a lawyer as soon as possible. The criminal justice system is very complicated and an experienced criminal defense lawyer can advise you of your rights and defenses.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 04-13-2018 01:33 AM PDT

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