If someone is convicted of a crime, they will then proceed to find our what the legal punishment for their behavior will be. This is known as the sentencing phase, and is separate from the part of the trial that determines guilt or innocence. Since there are many levels of crimes from minor infractions to aggravated felonies, there are also many different levels of possible criminal sentences. 

Sentences can range from fines and community service up to serious prison time, and in a few places, even capital punishment (such as the death penalty). Every jurisdiction defines their own criminal sentencing guidelines differently, and what the possible sentence for a conviction may be depends on where you are. Here is a short guide to how criminal sentencing works in America. 

Who Decides What Someone’s Sentence Will Be?

According to Constitutional law, every accused individual has the right to a trial by a jury of their peers. However, criminal trials are broken into two phases: the guilt phase and the sentencing phase, and this right is only absolute for the guilt/innocence portion of the trial. 

In most cases, it is the judge overseeing the trial’s proceedings that ultimately decides on someone’s sentence. The notable exception to the rule is capital punishment cases, where the jury is present for both phases of the trial. 

How Is a Criminal Sentence Decided?

Every state has their own sentencing rules, as does the federal justice system. These rules are laid out as guidelines for the judge to reference after a person is found guilty of the offense, and allows the judge to consider all sorts of mitigating and aggravating factors before passing sentence. 

The sentencing phase of a trial allows the introduction of certain kinds of evidence that cannot be introduced guilt/innocence phase. Past criminal history, for example, cannot be introduced as proof that the defendant is more likely to have committed this crime, as this creates an unfair bias against the accused.

There are many other factors that a judge will weigh before deciding on a sentence. Past criminal history is admissible evidence during the sentencing phase of a trial. A first time offender is more likely to receive a lenient sentence than a repeat offender. The judge will also take a look at the convicted person’s role in the offense. Were they the main actor, or merely an accessory? Were they pressured or unduly influenced to take part in the offense? And of course, the offender’s mannerisms are a big part of deciding on a sentence. Violent, vindictive, and cruel behavior during the commission of the crime means that judges are less likely to be lenient. 

What Are Some Possible Criminal Sentences?

Traditionally, criminal behavior was classified as either malum in se, or malum prohibitum. The first category was meant to define inherently evil acts like murder and torture, while the latter was used to define less serious crimes, like jaywalking when the city prohibits it. In the modern world, criminal behavior is much more complicated and nuanced, so criminal sentencing guidelines have evolved as well.

On the lower end are minor infractions including misdemeanors and disorderly conduct charges, which can garner fines, probation, community service, and even short jail terms. Serious crimes are commonly known as felonies, and usually mean years in prison. Finally, 30 American states still allow for the most serious punishment possible, the death penalty.

What Are Aggravating and Mitigating Circumstances for Sentencing Purposes?

There are certain facts, both about the crime committed and the accused’s history, that can make a potential sentence more severe or more lenient. As mentioned above, first time offenders often receive punishment on the lower end of the statutory guidelines, while a repeat offender may get a longer one. 

Aggravating circumstances during the commission of the crime are a major factor as well. For example, if someone commits a robbery while brandishing a gun, most states automatically bump up the severity of the charge. 

If I Negotiate a Plea Bargain, Does That Determine My Sentence?

Plea bargaining is a commonly used tool for both prosecutors and defendants alike. Sometimes the defendant is asked to give evidence against someone else in exchange for a lighter sentence, but there are other reasons a plea bargain may be used as well. Criminal dockets are often overloaded, and plea bargaining is often used by the state to keep the wheels of justice moving. 

So if you agree to a plea bargain with a prosecutor, is that automatically your sentence? Not necessarily. Judges do not have to accept the prosecutor’s recommendation for sentencing based on the plea bargain. But most judge’s trust the prosecutor’s judgment and will pass sentence as suggested. 

Do I Need an Attorney for Criminal Law Issues?

A criminal charge is a serious issue that can change the course of someone’s life. If convicted, the punishment can mean serious fines, prison time, and even a permanent criminal record. If you are facing criminal charges, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

Every state’s laws are different, and a local lawyer will know the intricacies of criminal law in your state. They can also advise you on the best way forward, and will be there to protect your rights every step of the way.