Process of Federal Sentencing

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 What Is Criminal Law?

In the United States, the two types of laws that are meant to punish wrongdoing or compensate victims of bad acts are known as criminal law and civil law. Civil law is meant to address behavior that causes some sort of injury to a person or other private party through lawsuits. The repercussions for any parties found liable for these acts are generally monetary, but can also include court-ordered remedies such as injunctions and/or restraining orders.

Alternatively, criminal law is intended to address behavior that is considered to be an offense against society, the state, or the public, even if the victim is an individual person. Not only can someone who is convicted of a crime be forced to pay criminal fines, but they can also lose their personal freedom by being sentenced to jail or prison time.

Regardless of whether someone is being charged with a serious crime or a minor crime, the accused person still has the right to a trial, as well as certain other legal protections.

The only two bodies that can bring a criminal case against someone would be the federal government or a state government. This is why cases are stylized as US v. Someone or State v. Someone. Whether the accused is charged in federal court or in a state court largely depends on what crime they are being charged with, as well as where the alleged offense occurred.

While every state has their own set of criminal laws, there are certain Constitutional rights that apply to every defendant, no matter what that crime is or where it happened.

These Constitutional rights include:

  • The Right To a Speedy Trial: The Sixth Amendment guarantees all criminal defendants the right to a speedy trial. This is done in order to prevent an accused person from being kept in jail for extended periods of time without proper adjudication;
  • The Right To a Jury: The Sixth Amendment also guarantees the right to a trial by jury. While many jurisdictions allow the defendant to waive a jury in favor of a bench trial, in which guilt is determined by a judge, this can be the defendant’s choice only. Additionally, this right is only universal with criminal prosecution, as civil trials have their own rules which govern jury rights;
  • Miranda Rights: The product of a famous Supreme Court case, Miranda rights give the criminal defendant access to an attorney, whether or not they can afford one to aid in their defense; and
  • Protection Against Self-Incrimination: More commonly known as “pleading the fifth,” this Constitutional protection states that a defendant cannot be forced to testify against their own interest during their trial.

What Is Criminal Sentencing?

When someone is convicted of a crime, they will then proceed to find out 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. Because there are multiple levels of crimes, from minor infractions to aggravated felonies, it follows that there are also many different levels of possible criminal sentences.

Sentences can range from fines and community service, up to serious prison time. In a few states, capital punishment is also a potential sentence, such as the death penalty. To reiterate, every jurisdiction defines their own criminal sentencing guidelines differently, and the possible sentence for a conviction may depend on where you are.

As was previously mentioned, according to Constitutional law, every accused individual has the right to a trial by a jury of their peers. However, criminal trials are divided into two phases: the guilt phase, and the sentencing phase. It is important to note that this right is only absolute for the guilt/innocence portion of the trial.

Generally speaking, it is the judge who is overseeing the trial’s proceedings that ultimately determines someone’s sentence. The most notable exception to the rule would be capital punishment cases, where the jury must be present for both phases of the trial.

What Is The Process For Federal Sentencing?

The process that judges use in order to determine sentences is fairly standard in the federal court system. First, the judge will consider the federal sentencing guidelines. These guidelines consider the seriousness of the crime as well as the defendant’s criminal history, and provide a recommended sentencing range. Because of a Supreme Court decision in 2005, these guidelines are no longer mandatory; however, they remain considerably influential with most federal judges.

Next, the parties who are involved can ask for a sentence that is different from that recommended by the federal guidelines. An example of this would be how the prosecution can ask for a longer sentence if the facts of the crime are especially egregious. Alternatively, the defense can argue that a shorter sentence would be appropriate because the defendant is unlikely to commit another crime.

After hearing these arguments, the judge will make their decision and pass a sentence. This decision can be appealed to the next court, where the sentence is reviewed in order to ensure that it was reasonable.

To reiterate, every state has their own sentencing rules, as does the federal justice system. These rules act as guidelines for the judge to reference after a person is found guilty of the offense, and allows the judge to consider various mitigating and aggravating factors before passing a sentence.

Additionally, the sentencing phase of a trial allows the introduction of certain kinds of evidence that cannot be introduced in the guilt/innocence phase. An example of this would be how past criminal history 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 consider before deciding on a sentence:

  • Past criminal history is considered to be admissible evidence during the sentencing phase of a trial, as a first time offender is more likely to receive a lenient sentence than a repeat offender;
  • The convicted person’s role in the offense, such as whether they are the main actor, or merely an accessory;
  • Whether the conviction was pressured or unduly influenced to take part in the offense; and
  • The offender’s mannerisms, as violent, vindictive, and cruel behavior during the commission of the crime means that judges are less likely to be lenient.

What Else Should I Know About Criminal Sentencing?

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

Minor infractions including misdemeanors and disorderly conduct charges generally result in:

  • Fines;
  • Probation;
  • Community service; and
  • Short jail terms.

Serious crimes are commonly known as felonies, and generally result in years spent in prison. There are 30 American states which still allow for the most serious punishment possible, which would be the death penalty.

As was previously mentioned, there are certain facts that can make a potential sentence more severe or more lenient. First time offenders often receive punishment on the lower end of the statutory guidelines, while a repeat offender may get a longer sentence.

Aggravating circumstances during the commission of the crime are a defining factor as well. An example of this would be how if someone commits a robbery while brandishing a gun, most states automatically enhance the severity of the charge.

Plea bargaining is a commonly used tool for both prosecutors and defendants. The defendant may be asked to give evidence against someone else in exchange for a lighter sentence; however, there are other reasons that a plea bargain may be used as well. Because criminal dockets are generally overloaded, plea bargaining is frequently used by the state to keep the process flowing.

Agreeing to a plea bargain with a prosecutor does not automatically make that your sentence. This is because judges do not have to accept the prosecutor’s recommendation for sentencing based on the plea bargain. However, most judges trust the prosecutor’s judgment, and will pass the sentence as suggested.

Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With Federal Sentencing?

If you have questions about federal sentencing, you should consult with a criminal defense lawyer. Your attorney can help you understand your legal rights and options according to your state’s specific criminal laws, and will also be able to defend you in court, as needed.


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