Sentencing in Court

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 What Is Sentencing in Court?

Sentencing in court refers to the stage in a criminal case where a defendant who has been convicted of a crime (either through a plea bargain or as a result of a trial) is ordered to undergo a specific punishment. The punishment, or sentence, can vary widely depending on the nature of the crime and can include fines, community service, probation, imprisonment, and more.

The severity of the punishment often aligns with the seriousness of the crime, with misdemeanors carrying lighter sentences and felonies. These include grand theft charges or felony embezzlement, leading to more severe penalties.

What Are Sentencing Guidelines?

Sentencing guidelines are a set of standards that judges use to determine the appropriate punishment for a convicted defendant. In the United States, federal sentencing guidelines are used in federal courts to establish consistent and fair sentencing practices for specific crimes across all jurisdictions. These guidelines take into consideration both the severity of the offense and the defendant’s criminal history, among other factors.

While these guidelines provide a framework for sentencing, judges do have some discretion and can deviate from these guidelines in certain circumstances. However, they must provide clear and compelling reasons for doing so.

Here are a few examples where a judge might deviate from the standard sentencing guidelines.

  • Mitigating Circumstances: These are factors that, while not excusing the crime, could potentially reduce the severity of the punishment. For instance, the judge may consider the following factors and impose a sentence that is less than what the guidelines suggest if a defendant:
    • Had no prior criminal history;
    • Was a minor participant in the crime
    • Was under duress or extreme emotional disturbance; or
    • Has shown remorse.
  • Aggravating Circumstances: These are factors that can increase the severity of the sentence. For example, the judge could impose a sentence that is harsher than the guidelines’ recommendation if:
    • The crime was particularly heinous or cruel;
    • The defendant was a leader or organizer of the criminal activity;
    • The crime involved vulnerable victims (like children or the elderly); or
    • The defendant has a significant criminal history.
  • Substantial Assistance: If a defendant has provided “substantial assistance” to the authorities in the investigation or prosecution of other persons who have committed offenses, the judge might impose a lesser sentence than suggested by the guidelines. This usually involves providing information that leads to the arrest or conviction of other criminals.
  • Acceptance of Responsibility: If a defendant pleads guilty and thereby accepts responsibility for the crime, the court can take this into consideration and may reduce the sentence accordingly. This acceptance might be seen as a sign of remorse and a willingness to accept the consequences of one’s actions.

Additionally, all sentences must comply with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights and provides that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” This prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” has been a significant principle in shaping the American criminal justice system.

“Cruel and unusual punishment” refers to punishment that is considered inhumane or disproportionate to the crime committed. The interpretation of what constitutes “cruel and unusual” can vary and has evolved over time. However, the courts generally consider factors such as the severity of the crime, the character of the offender, and the common practices in other jurisdictions.

When imposing a sentence, judges are obligated to ensure that the punishment is proportionate to the crime. That is, the punishment should not be excessive or overly harsh relative to the offense committed. For example, sentencing a person to life imprisonment for a minor theft charge could potentially be seen as “cruel and unusual” because the punishment is vastly disproportionate to the crime.

Furthermore, the conditions of confinement must also comply with 8th Amendment rights. This means that prisoners must not be subject to inhumane conditions, including physical abuse or neglect, failure to provide adequate medical care or other conditions that involve unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.

Judges have discretion in determining the appropriate sentence within the statutory guidelines. However, they must always ensure that their decisions comply with the Constitution, including the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. If a defendant believes their punishment violates this right, they can challenge the sentence on these grounds during a criminal appeal.

What if There Is a Problem or Disagreement With the Sentencing?

If a defendant or their attorney believes there has been an error in the sentencing, they have the right to appeal the sentence to a higher court. This process, known as a criminal appeal, allows the appellate court to review the case for any legal or procedural errors, including issues with the sentencing.

However, it’s important to understand that an appeal is not a retrial, and the appellate court will not consider new evidence or reassess the credibility of witnesses. The appellate court’s review is limited to the record of the proceedings in the lower court and any errors of law that may have occurred.

The process of a criminal appeal involves several stages:

Notice of Appeal

The first step in the appeal process is filing a notice of appeal with the trial court. This document, usually required to be filed within a specific timeframe (often within 30 days of the judgment), announces the intention to appeal and identifies the decision being appealed.

Record on Appeal

The record on appeal is a compilation of all the documents, exhibits, and transcripts of court proceedings from the trial court. This is provided to the appellate court so they can review what happened in the trial court.


Both the appellant (the party making the appeal, usually the defendant in criminal cases) and the appellee (the party opposing the appeal, typically the government in criminal cases) submit written briefs. The appellant’s brief argues why the trial court’s decision was wrong, citing legal or procedural errors. The appellee’s brief argues why the decision was correct. Both briefs will refer to laws, previous court decisions, and the trial court record to support their arguments.

Oral Arguments

In some cases, the appellate court will hold oral arguments. During oral arguments, the attorneys for both sides present their cases to the judges, emphasizing the key points of their written briefs. The judges may ask questions to clarify the arguments or to challenge the attorneys’ reasoning.


After reviewing the record on appeal and the briefs and hearing oral arguments, the appellate judges will make their decision. They can affirm (uphold) the trial court’s decision, reverse it, or remand the case (send it back to the trial court for further proceedings). The appellate court’s decision is typically explained in a written opinion, which sets out the court’s reasoning and the legal principles applied.

Further Appeals

The appellant may not be satisfied with the appellate court’s decision. If that is the case, they may be able to take the case to a higher appellate court, all the way up to the Supreme Court, although the Supreme Court hears only a small percentage of the cases submitted to it.

Do I Need a Lawyer if I Have Questions Regarding Sentencing in Court?

Yes, if you have been charged with a crime or have questions about sentencing, consult with an experienced criminal lawyer. Sentencing laws and guidelines can be complex and vary significantly depending on the jurisdiction and the nature of the crime.

LegalMatch can help you find the right attorney who can guide you through the process, protect your rights, and work to secure the best possible outcome in your case. Don’t wait – find your ideal criminal defense attorney through LegalMatch today.

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