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How Does Criminal Sentencing Work?

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How Does Criminal Sentencing Work?

As the old saying goes, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” Everyone knows that punishment will follow a criminal conviction. This punishment can include probation, fines, community service, jail and prison time, or even the death penalty. However, how is the criminal sentence decided?

Who May Impose a Criminal Sentence?

Criminal sentences are almost always passed by judges.  Juries rarely take part in deciding punishment. One exception involves the death penalty – in several states, the judge cannot impose capital punishment unless the jury recommends it instead of life in prison.

Are There Any Rules for Criminal Sentencing?

Some criminal laws include the punishment to be imposed for breaking it. The federal government and several states have passed sentencing guidelines, which provide a recommended range of jail time and/or fines for each crime. These guidelines can vary significantly between states.

While many guidelines are optional, many judges follow them closely. The sentencing requirement that judges must obey, however, is the eighth amendment of the Federal Constitution forbidding excessive bails, excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishment. Although the amendment is vague, the Supreme Court has ruled that “cruel and unusual” refers to sentences which are outrageous, inhuman and/or would shock the public conscious. 

Can a Judge Increase or Decrease a Sentence?

Judges can use a number of factors to help them determine the sentence. These factors can increase the punishment, such as when the crime was particularly cruel or if the defendant committed a minor felony three times. However, they can also lead the judge to pass a lesser sentence, such as when the defendant has little or no criminal history. Sentences can also be reduced, or migrated, if new factors in the case change the outcome of the case. 

If a defendant is found guilty of more than one crime, then the judge may impose more than one sentence. Hence, a convict may be forced to serve consecutive imprisonment sentences, one sentence after another.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you have questions about the likely punishment for a crime, you should consult with a criminal lawyer. An experienced defense attorney should be able to make a fairly accurate prediction about the sentence for a crime. 

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 10-05-2016 04:36 PM PDT

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