When convicted of a crime, finding out what the legal punishment for your behavior will be is known as the sentencing phase. This is separate from the part of the trial that determines guilt or innocence. Because there are many different levels of crimes ranging from minor infractions to aggravated felonies, there are also many different levels of possible criminal sentences.
Sentences include fines and community service, as well as serious prison time. In some states, capital punishment such as the death penalty may be a potential sentence. Because every jurisdiction defines their own criminal sentencing guidelines differently, the possible sentence for a conviction may depend on where you are and where the crime was committed.
Under Constitutional law, every accused individual has the right to a trial by a jury of their peers. However, because criminal trials are divided into the guilt phase and the sentencing phase, this right is only absolute for the guilt/innocence portion of the trial.
In most cases, it is the judge that is overseeing the trial’s proceedings that ultimately determines someone’s sentence. The notable exception to this rule would be capital punishment cases, in which the jury is present for both phases of the trial.
Additionally, the federal justice system has its own rules as well. These rules are intended to be guidelines for the judge to reference after a person is found guilty of an offense. They also allow the judge to consider mitigating and aggravating factors before passing any sentence.
The sentencing phase of a trial allows for the introduction of specific 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, because this would create 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, but only during the sentencing phase of a trial. Additionally, a first time offender is more likely to receive a lenient sentence than a repeat offender.
The judge will also consider the convicted person’s role in the offense, such as whether they are the main actor, or merely an accessory. Were they pressured or unduly influenced to take part in the offense? The offender’s mannerisms are a considerable part of criminal sentencing, as violent, vindictive, and cruel behavior during the commission of the crime generally cause judges to be less lenient.
What Are Some Possible Criminal Sentences?
In a legal context, criminal behavior was traditionally classified as either malum in se, or malum prohibitum. The first category was intended 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. Because criminal behavior is much more complicated and nuanced, criminal sentencing guidelines have evolved as well.
Minor infractions including misdemeanors and disorderly conduct charges can result in:
- Community service; and
- Short jail terms.
Serious crimes, such as felonies, generally involve several years in prison. There are 30 American states that still allow for the most serious punishment possible, which would be the death penalty.
Aggravating circumstances during the commission of the crime also influence criminal sentencing. An example of this would be how if someone commits a robbery while brandishing a gun, most states immediately enhance the severity of the charge.
What Is A Mandatory Minimum? Are Mandatory Minimums Fair?
To reiterate, punishment generally includes jail time, fines, or probation. Generally speaking, the judge has a considerable amount of discretion when deciding what sentence to pass. However, if the law that you broke has a “mandatory minimum,” much of the sentencing decision is taken from the judge’s hands.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require automatic prison terms for those who are convicted of certain crimes. While they are associated with a number of different crimes, they are most commonly associated with drug and gun laws. The most recognized mandatory minimum is the “three strikes” law, in which a person must serve a minimum of 25 years after being convicted of a third felony. Three strikes laws are further discussed later on.
Applying mandatory sentencing is intended to remove judicial discretion from the sentencing process, which should also remove any judicial bias in the criminal justice system. However, mandatory minimum sentences have had an unexpected side effect. While mandatory sentencing removes judicial bias, there is nothing which controls prosecutors.
As such, prosecutors have used the mandatory sentencing system to pile on extra charges in an attempt to scare a defendant into accepting a plea bargain. Because the mandatory sentences are known by the defendant, they may be fooled into accepting the bargain without considering the possibility that the extra sentences can be successfully fought in trial.
The mandatory sentencing system treats all criminals who are convicted the same. What this means is that there is no consideration for outstanding factors such as:
- First time offenses;
- The age of the defendant;
- Their criminal background; and
- The specific requests of victims.
What Else Should I Know About Three Strikes Laws?
Many states have three strikes laws, which are also known as a three strikes rule. These laws impose harsher sentences on those who have been convicted of certain felonies three times. Generally speaking, the penalty upon the third conviction is a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
Three strikes laws are not the same as habitual offender laws. Although both involve defendants convicted of multiple crimes, they are not the same. To reiterate, three strikes laws apply to certain felonies, while habitual offender laws can be applied on any subsequent offense after the first. These two laws do have similar goals in that they serve to deter future similar behavior from the defendant. They are also an attempt to ensure repeat offenders receive appropriate sentences, as well as serve sufficient time before being released on parole.
The application of both of these types of laws varies by state, and depends on:
- The length of time between the crimes;
- The seriousness of the crimes;
- The order in which the crimes were committed; and/or
- The discretion of the judge in sentencing under local laws.
States that have a third strike law include:
- Arkansas (since 1995);
- Arizona (since 2005);
- California (since 1994);
- Colorado (since 1994);
- Connecticut (since 1994);
- Delaware (since 1973);
- Florida (since 1995);
- Georgia (since 1994);
- Indiana (since 1994);
- Kansas (since 1994);
- Louisiana (since 1994);
- Maryland (since 1975 but amended in 1994);
- Massachusetts (since 2012);
- Montana (since 1995);
- Nevada (since 1995);
- New Jersey (since 1995);
- New Mexico (since 1994);
- New York (since 1797);
- North Carolina (since 1994);
- North Dakota (since 1995);
- Pennsylvania (since 1995);
- South Carolina (since 1995);
- Tennessee (since 1994);
- Texas (since 1952);
- Utah (since 1995);
- Vermont (since 1995);
- Virginia (since 1994);
- Washington (since 1993); and
- Wisconsin (since 1994).
Three strikes laws can be viewed as controversial, and as such it is common for states to repeal them. Some states have amended them to only apply to certain serious felonies such as in Delaware, or to extend the number of strikes allowed to four such as in Maryland.
Many of these original three strikes laws did not allow judicial discretion, and required a longer mandatory sentence. Reforms generally eliminate mandatory longer sentences and give the judge discretion to hand down a sentence that fits the particular crime and defendant. Other common reforms include:
- The elimination of life without parole sentences;
- Removing non-violent crimes as a “strike;” and/or
- Allowing the possibility of parole earlier in a sentence.
Do I Need A Lawyer To Contest A Mandatory Minimum Sentence?
If you wish to contest a mandatory minimum sentence, you should consult with a criminal attorney. An experienced criminal lawyer can help you understand your state’s laws and how those laws will affect your legal rights and options. Additionally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court as needed.