When an individual is convicted of a crime, either a misdemeanor or a felony, they may be facing time in jail or prison. During such a stressful time, an individual may be wondering how they might keep the time spent incarcerated as short as possible.

A criminal sentence is a legal punishment imposed upon a defendant who was convicted of a crime. Criminal sentencing varies by state and jurisdiction, with each making their own laws unless they are prohibited by federal law. There are commonalities in sentencing throughout the United States, including a penalty following a criminal conviction. Penalties may include:

  • Incarceration;
  • Fines;
  • Probation or parole; and/or
  • Community service.

In most cases, a conviction and criminal sentence are final decisions. A defendant may be able to request a sentence modification but must do so according to court rules. Generally, there is a 14 day time limit for a defendant to request any clerical corrections to a criminal sentence. A clerical correction may include a correction needed if the sentence called for a probation period of 12 months but the clerk mistakenly entered the probation as 24 months.

There are also other limited circumstances where a sentence may need changing or correcting. This may include a judicial error, or a mistake made by the court such as excluding evidence that should have been allowed and/or a chance in the law which retroactively alters previous sentences. A retroactive law is a law that is passed that applies both to future circumstances and previous instances of the same crime or sentence. 

If a defendant is proactive during the legal process, there may be ways to reduce their criminal sentence and the time spent away from family, friends, and freedom. This article will provide information regarding sentence reduction laws and reducing a sentence after a criminal conviction.

Timing: When Should I Ask for a Sentence Reduction?

Requesting a sentence reduction is properly done during the sentencing phase of the criminal process. The criminal justice system functions in two phases, the guilt phase, also known as the trial portion, and the sentencing phase, or sentencing portion. 

If a defendant is convicted of the crime charged in the guilt phase, they will proceed on to the sentencing phase. It is during this phase that the defendant has the opportunity to advocate for a more lenient sentence and initiate the sentence reduction process.

Depending on the rules of the jurisdiction, a motion may be in writing or made orally before the court. In order to ask for a more lenient sentence, usually, a defendant’s attorney can file what is called a motion for modification of sentence. The exact phrasing of the motion title may vary by state.

The motion should provide information regarding why the request should be granted, such as new information is available that was not available at trial. In most cases, this type of motion includes a request to shorten a defendant’s sentence. 

After the motion is filed, the court will set a hearing to allow the defendant to argue the merits of their request for a sentence modification. In more serious cases that carry longer sentences, the court often requires the prosecution in the case to sign off on the reduced sentence as well before it will be granted. It is imperative that this motion be filed prior to a sentence being finalized, as retroactive attempts at sentence reduction are rarely allowed.

The court will take the motion under consideration. However, in most cases, the court is still required to adhere to any applicable sentencing guidelines. The court will either grant or deny the defendant’s motion for a sentence modification.

What Can I Do to Help Get a Reduced Sentence?

There are steps a defendant can take to seek a reduced sentence. One of the most common scenarios that individuals are familiar with is the defendant becoming a cooperating witness for the prosecution, or testifying against another individual in exchange for leniency. In these cases, the prosecution may offer a defendant a lighter sentence if they provide testimony that assists in the conviction of another defendant.

Another example of circumstances that may cause a sentence reduction is if grounds of compassionate release exist. If a defendant is extremely advanced in age and/or terminally ill, they may ask their attorney to petition the court and present a request for sentence reduction or early release. Sentencing guidelines will vary by state regarding which inmates are eligible for compassionate release. There are some states that do not permit compassionate release at all. 

What If the Law or Facts of My Case Change Afterwards?

Laws and criminal sentencing guidelines may change and evolve over the years. Sometimes, it is possible to change an inmate’s circumstances based on changes in the law. For example, currently, many states are reviewing and altering both charges and sentences for possession of small amounts of certain narcotics. If the current standards are vastly different than the sentence a defendant received previously, they may be able to petition to have their sentence changed to reflect current laws and guidelines. 

It is also possible that new evidence and/or information may surface after a verdict is rendered and a sentence is handed down that may exonerate a defendant and/or substantially change how the crime should have been charged. These instances are rare but may allow a request for sentence modification outside the punishment phase.

Is It Possible My Sentence Was Illegal?

It may be possible that a defendant’s sentence was illegal, but that is rarely the case. If this does occur, it happens when a conviction is valid, but the sentence handed down is not. This situation may occur if the sentence does not follow the proper law, such as when a prison sentence in excess of what is permitted by the criminal code is imposed.

Another example of an illegal sentence occurs when a defendant’s sentence does not follow a valid plea bargain that was properly negotiated and signed by the necessary individuals. In this case, the defendant may petition the court to have their sentence thrown out. 

Another possible, although extremely rare, illegal sentence occurs when the court that handled the case did not have jurisdiction to hear it. It is, however, extremely rare to have any sentence overturned on the basis of illegality.

What Are My Chances of Actually Changing My Sentence?

In most cases, whether to grant a sentence modification is a decision that lies with the court. Whether a defendant is requesting a compassionate release, a reduction based on sentencing guidelines, or another legal reason, presenting their case in the best possible manner increases their chances of succeeding. 

It is important to have the assistance of an attorney when requesting a sentence modification. They can assist in presenting the best possible case as well as presenting favorable evidence, such as good behavior while incarcerated. A court is unlikely to grant a sentence reduction for a defendant who appears to still be a danger to the community. 

Do I Need A Lawyer for Help with a Sentence Reduction?

Yes, it is important to have the help of an experienced criminal lawyer to assist with a sentence reduction. An attorney can review your case and sentencing, determine if a reduction may be possible, and present your request in the best possible way to the court. Having professional assistance when requesting a sentence reduction may be the difference between the court granting the request or the defendant receiving a denial.