Types of Criminal Sentences

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 What Are the Different Types of Criminal Sentences?

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.

What Are Some Common Legal Issues Associated With Sentencing?

Each state in the U.S. has its own system of criminal law and law enforcement. Then, the federal government has yet another system of criminal law and law enforcement. So, how a criminal defendant is sentenced after they have been found guilty depends on the law that applies. States have very different schemes for sentencing a defendant who has been found guilty. Some have elaborate criminal sentencing guidelines.

The federal government has its Federal Sentencing Guidelines. These are rules that the U.S. federal court system has established with the goal of uniformity in sentencing policy for defendants in the federal court system.

The guidelines set out a number of factors that a judge should consider in determining a sentence for any given defendant. The factors relate to the guilt of the defendant and also reflect the harm the defendant caused to others. They also account for the seriousness of the crime and the defendant’s criminal record.

The guidelines are not mandatory but rather advisory only. A court must consider the guidelines but does not have to impose only the sentence suggested by the guidelines. If a judge does decide not to follow the guidelines, they must explain the factors that have led them to deviate from the sentence that the guidelines recommend. If the judge follows the guidelines to the letter, a court of appeal may presume that the sentence is a reasonable one.

The state of Colorado also has criminal sentencing guidelines for felony offenses, as do many other states. Every felony falls into one of six classes of felonies. The guidelines specify the punishment for each class. For example, the possible sentence for a Class 2 felony is a term of imprisonment of 8 to 24 years in Colorado State Prison and/or payment of a fine of $5,000 to $1,000,000.

If the Class 2 felony is a crime of violence, the defendant must be sentenced to at least 5 years of mandatory parole when they have completed their prison sentence.

If the crime is not a crime of violence, the defendant must be sentenced to at least 3 years of mandatory parole.

The guidelines specify mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment, but in practice, some defendants are able to avoid serving time in prison through felony probation or other alternatives such as home confinement. As is the case at every sentencing hearing in every criminal case, the defendant has the right to tell the judge about mitigating circumstances that might convince the judge to pronounce a lighter sentence.

Each state has its own scheme. Some states classify crimes in categories with letter labels, e.g., Class A, B, C, and so on. Some sentencing guidelines can be quite complex, e.g., the guidelines in North Carolina.

Clearly, a criminal defendant is interested in obtaining a reduced sentence, and the prosecution wants a sentence that it believes fits the circumstances of the case. In many states, for a first conviction, a defendant may have alternatives that allow them to avoid jail or prison, even if that is the legally prescribed sentence.

One big issue in sentencing is whether the defendant has prior convictions for other criminal offenses. Almost always, if a defendant has prior convictions, the defendant can be sentenced to a more severe punishment and may not qualify for programs that divert them from serving a term of imprisonment.

What Are Some Common Criminal Defenses?

There are defenses available to criminal defendants. If a defendant claims a defense, they must prove it in court at their trial. If they are successful, then a jury would not convict the defendant, and the defendant would be found innocent and not subject to any punishment.

Some defenses that are available are as follows:

  • The Alibi Defense: With the alibi defense, the defendant claims that they were somewhere else doing something else at the time of the crime, so they could not have done it. In effect, they claim that they have been misidentified as the perpetrator;
  • Insanity of the Defendant: The defendant may avoid responsibility for a crime if they can persuade a jury that they were mentally ill at the time. States may have different definitions of what “insanity” is for the purpose of a defense to a charge of a crime;
  • Self-defense or Defense of Another: A person is entitled to use reasonable force to defend themselves against an attack from another person or to defend another. It can be a defense to a crime such as assault, battery, or even murder to claim that a person acted in defense of themselves or another person;
  • Entrapment: A defendant who claims entrapment must prove that a law enforcement officer induced them to commit a crime that the person would never have done except for the persuasion and fraud of the officer;
  • Duress: A defendant may claim the defense of duress if they committed a crime only because they were under threat of the use of force or violence. The defendant has to show that any reasonable person in their position would have committed the crime as the defendant did.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Issues With Criminal Sentences?

If you are facing criminal charges, you want to consult with a criminal defense lawyer. LegalMatch.com can connect you with a lawyer who can review the facts of your case and tell you if any defenses are available to you. Working with an attorney can help you review the possible outcomes of your situation. Criminal lawyers are skilled at helping defendants get the best possible sentence.

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