When issuing a sentence in a criminal case, a judge usually has some discretion to prescribe punishment that is appropriate to the crime. However, in some states, judges and jurors must follow basic criminal sentencing guidelines so as to avoid sentences that are unconstitutional.
Also, guidelines help to ensure equity in sentencing so that defendants convicted of the same crime are not given wildly different sentences that may not reflect objective consideration of the factors at play in their respective cases.
The following are some of the different terms used in discussions of criminal sentencing:
- Concurrent Sentences: If a defendant is judged to be guilty of two or more criminal charges at the same time and is sentenced to imprisonment for each of them, the judge has the option of making the terms of imprisonment concurrent or consecutive. If the terms of imprisonment for each crime are served concurrently, it means that every day the defendant spends in jail or prison counts toward all of their sentences;
- Consecutive or Cumulative Sentences: If a defendant is convicted of more than one crime at the same time and the judge orders them to serve their sentences consecutively or cumulatively, the defendant must first serve one sentence. Then, after the first sentence has been completed, they must serve the next one, and so on, until all sentences have been completed.
- The sentences may be said to be “tacked” onto one another so that each term begins once the previous sentence has been served;
- Deferred Sentence: A judge may sentence a person to a term of imprisonment in jail or prison and then defer service of the sentence until after a defendant has completed a period of probation. If the defendant successfully completes their period of probation without problem, the judge may then determine that the sentence has been served. Or they may delete the sentence and even the guilty plea, clearing the defendant’s criminal record.
- On the other hand, if the defendant violates the terms and conditions of their probation, the judge can order them to start serving their jail or prison term immediately;
- Determinate or Fixed Sentence: This is a sentence for a fixed amount of time, not generally subject to change or adjustment;
- Final Sentence: A final sentence is a sentence that brings a criminal prosecution to a final close. Final sentences are often imposed to replace an “interlocutory” or “interim” sentence, which is a temporary sentence in place while further analysis is conducted;
- Indeterminate Sentence: Instead of stating a fixed sentence, a judge may pronounce an open-ended sentence, e.g., that the sentencing period shall be “not more than” or “not less than” a certain amount of time. Indeterminate sentences are possible if state law allows them;
- Life Sentence: A life sentence requires a defendant to spend the remainder of their life in prison. This is subject to the possibility that the defendant could win parole at some time. However, if a defendant is sentenced to life without parole, then there is no possibility that they could get out of prison by winning parole at any time.
- Some states have three-strikes laws that prescribe a mandatory life sentence for a third conviction of a serious crime;
- Mandatory Sentence: These represent a sentence in which the judge has little or no discretion to adjust the time period. It usually means that alternative sentencing or probation is not allowed. It would be determined by the applicable state law;
- Maximum Sentence: A maximum sentence is the maximum or greatest amount of time that a convicted person can be held in custody;
- Minimum Sentence: A minimum sentence is the minimum amount of time that the person must spend in prison, after which they can sometimes be eligible for parole;
- Presumptive Sentence: State statutes may suggest an appropriate or “normal” sentence that is associated with a given crime. Presumptive guidelines help judges to determine a sentence after reviewing all the relevant factors;
- Straight or Flat Sentence: This basically refers to a sentence that has no maximum or minimum associated with it;
- Suspended Sentence: A suspended sentence may be a situation in which the pronouncement of the sentence is postponed. Or, it can be a situation in which the defendant is given an opportunity to avoid serving time in jail or prison if they fulfill the conditions of probation for some time.
- If they violate the terms of their probation, they then may have to serve their sentence;
- Intermittent Sentence: An intermittent sentence is one that allows a defendant to serve their sentence on weekends only. This allows a defendant to go to work or school and serve their sentence. It is allowed in situations in which the defendant received a suspended jail sentence. Therefore, as a condition of probation, in order to help the defendant remain employed or in school, they can do their time on weekends.