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 What Is Criminal Sentencing?

When someone is convicted of a crime, they will be put through the criminal justice system, and then proceed to find out what the legal punishment for their behavior will be. This is known as the sentencing phase, and this phase is separate from the part of the criminal trial that determines guilt or innocence. Because there are many different levels of crimes, from minor infractions to aggravated felonies, it follows that there are also many different levels of possible criminal sentences.

Criminal sentences can range from fines and community service, up to serious prison time; and, in a few places, even capital punishment. An example of this would be the death penalty. Each jurisdiction defines their own criminal sentencing guidelines differently, as well as what the possible sentence for a conviction may be. As such, criminal sentencing largely depends on where you are.

According to American Constitutional law, every accused person has the right to a trial by a jury of their peers. As was previously mentioned, criminal trials are broken into two phases: the guilt phase, and the sentencing phase. This right to a trial by a jury is only absolute for the guilt or innocence portion of the trial.

Generally speaking, it is the judge who is overseeing the trial’s proceedings that will ultimately decide on 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.

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

The sentencing phase of a criminal trial allows for the introduction of certain kinds of evidence that cannot be introduced in the guilt or 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. This is because doing so would create an unfair bias against the accused.

There are many other factors that a judge will consider before deciding on a sentence. Examples of this include:

  • 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 judge will also consider the convicted person’s role in the offense. An example of this would be whether they were the main actor, or merely an accessory to the crime;
  • The judge will question whether they were pressured or unduly influenced to take part in the offense; and/or
  • The offender’s own mannerisms are a significant determining factor when deciding on a criminal sentence. Violent, vindictive, and/or cruel behavior during the commission of the crime will generally influence judges to be less lenient.

What Are Some Potential Criminal Sentences?

Traditionally, criminal behavior was classified as either malum in se, or malum prohibitum. Malum in se was meant to define inherently evil acts such as murder and torture, while malum prohibitum was used to define less serious crimes such as jaywalking when the city prohibits it. Because criminal behavior has evolved to be considerably more complicated and nuanced, criminal sentencing guidelines have evolved as well.

On the lower end would be minor infractions, such as misdemeanors and disorderly conduct charges, which can result in sentences such as:

  • Fines;
  • Probation;
  • Community service; and
  • Short jail terms to be spent in a county jail facility.

Serious crimes are more commonly known as felonies, and generally result in years spent in a federal prison facility. Additionally, there are thirty American states which still allow for the most serious punishment possible, the death penalty.

There are specific facts, both about the crime committed and the accused’s history, that can make a potential sentence either more severe or more lenient. As was mentioned above, first time offenders frequently receive punishment on the lower end of the statutory guidelines, while a repeat offender may receive a punishment on the higher end.

Additionally, aggravating circumstances during the commission of the crime are a significantly influencing factor. An example of this would be how if someone commits a robbery while brandishing a gun, most states automatically increase the severity of the charge.

Plea bargaining is a commonly used tool for both prosecutors and defendants alike. 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. An example of this would be how because criminal dockets are notoriously overloaded, plea bargaining is often used by the state in order to keep the justice process in motion.

Agreeing to a plea bargain with a prosecutor does not automatically render that as your sentence. Judges are under no obligation to accept the prosecutor’s recommendation for sentencing based on the plea bargain. However, most judges trust the prosecutor’s judgment, and will pass sentences as suggested.

What Is An Acquittal?

In a criminal case, an acquittal may be granted by a judge, but only under certain circumstances. Simply put, an acquittal means that the accused person becomes free from the charges that were brought against them. As such, they will not face any criminal consequences, even if new evidence arises that could further incriminate the defendant.

An acquittal may be granted according to the verdict of a jury, or by the operation of some criminal procedure rules that discharge the defendant. A defendant who has been granted an acquittal is said to be “acquitted” from the charges, and as such is not guilty of the charges.

An acquittal is most commonly granted when it is clear that there is not enough evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt, as there is a presumption that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. An acquittal can also be granted if it is clear, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is not guilty. A motion for an acquittal may be filed during a criminal trial after both sides have presented their arguments. There are some cases in which the motion may be filed before the prosecution is done presenting their side of the case, but this is rarely done in practice.

Additionally, an acquittal can serve to remove the trial from the decision of a jury in order to transfer it into the hands of a judge. While defendants generally have the right to a jury trial, they may opt to file a motion for acquittal and have a judge decide it. An example of when this may be done would be if there is a possibility that the jury is biased.

One of the defining aspects of an acquittal is that once it has been granted, the person can no longer be prosecuted or tried for those same charges. This is due to “double jeopardy” laws, which prohibit a person from being tried twice or more for the same crime. To reiterate, the case cannot be appealed, even if new evidence is brought forth.

However, an appeal can sometimes be granted under specific circumstances. An example of this would be if the acquittal was granted after the jury already reached a verdict of “guilty,” which has been known to happen.

Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With A Criminal Charge Acquittal?

Acquittal is not available in all cases. You should consult with a criminal defense attorney if you are seeking an acquittal, as your lawyer can advise you of your legal rights and options. Additionally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.

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