A criminal sentence is a legal punishment imposed upon an individual that is processed through the judicial system and is found guilty of a crime. Typically, a judge’s ruling and sentencing are final decisions. There are instances, however, wherein a criminal sentence can be modified. Specific rules regarding a change to a criminal sentence rely on several factors, including a court’s jurisdiction. 

Court rules may differ on the time allowed to file a request to modify a criminal sentence. For instance, many courts, including the federal courts, adhere to a 14 day rule for defendants to request any clerical-type corrections to a criminal sentence. In general, a sentence may be modified if new information emerges that impacts an individual’s original sentence.

Judges may change or correct a defendant’s sentence for a limited number of reasons, including:

  • Clerical Errors: for example, if the original sentence called for a probation period of 12 months but the court clerk entered the probation as 24 months by mistake;
  • Judicial Errors: this occurs when the court makes a mistake during the trial. For example, if the court did not allow certain testimony or evidence to be heard during the trial but it should have been allowed; and,
  • Changes in the Law: in some instances, the rules and regulations change and in turn the new law retroactively alters the previous sentence.

Other instances that may warrant a court to modify a sentence include mitigating factors, such as:

  • Cooperation in Another Criminal Matter: a sentence may be reduced if the defendant assists solving another case;
  • Terminal Illness: a sentence may be reduced if the individual’s health is failing; and
  • Over the Age of 70: some courts will take into consideration an elderly criminal’s age and modify their sentence.

How Do You Modify a Criminal Sentence?

A valid reason must exist in order to modify a criminal sentence. As noted above, if the court makes an error and a request to correct that error is timely filed with the court, in most instances, the court will correct the mistake. 

If there is some other new information that was not available during the trial that would warrant a change in sentencing, then a motion to modify a sentence must be timely drafted and presented to the court, typically by an attorney, on behalf of the defendant.

Depending on the jurisdictional court rules, a motion is often in writing, but can also be made verbally, and it requests from the court some form of action. In this example, a motion to modify a criminal sentence, asks the court to review the reasoning presented in the request and grant a change in a defendant’s sentence. 

The motion should explain why the information was not available during the trial proceeding. It should also explain why this new information warrants a change in the defendant’s sentence.

A motion to modify a criminal sentence is usually asking the court to somehow reduce the existing sentence. The existing sentence can be jail time, probation, community service and/or  monetary fines. 

A judge will take under consideration a defendant’s request but, in most instances, the court is still bound to adhere to any applicable sentencing guidelines. The presiding judge either grants the motion to modify the sentence or denies the motion.

Is Reversing a Criminal Sentence the Same as Modifying It?

Reversing a criminal sentence is a process wherein an appeals court reviews a defendant’s motion to appeal their case and reverses, or overrides, the lower court’s decision to impose a criminal sentence.

A defendant must timely file an appeal in order for it to be considered by the court. If the appeals court reverses the defendant’s criminal sentence, then the sentence is no longer warranted and the defendant basically wins their appeal.

Modifying a criminal sentence is different from reversing it because a reversal eliminates the sentence in its entirety while the modification, in most instances, simply reduces the sentence.

What Else Do I Need to Know About Modifying a Criminal Sentence?

Criminal sentences vary. This can be due to several possible factors, including: the crime committed, state and/or federal sentencing guidelines, whether or not the individual has a criminal history, whether anyone was injured because of the crime committed as well as the role of the individual (main actor, accomplice, accessory, etc.). Sentences can include: jail time, probation, community service, and monetary fines. 

A presiding judge is bound by the sentencing guidelines and will consider all of the circumstances in the case and, in most instances, impose a fitting sentence on the defendant. The sentenced defendant is responsible for fulfilling their own sentence. While they may be able to request modifications to decrease the sentence, for example, they are not permitted to have someone else carry out their sentence for them.

Do I Need a Lawyer If I Want to Modify My Criminal Sentence?

While it is not mandatory to hire an attorney to work on the modification of your criminal sentence, in order to get the right results, it might behoove you to do so. It is important to file requests and motions in a timely fashion and be familiar with the local court rules. 

It is also important to incorporate and draft the relevant information in a way that will convince a judge to grant the modification. If you or someone you know needs assistance with requesting a modification of a criminal sentence, it is imperative to speak with a knowledgeable and experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.