How Are Criminal Sentences Determined?
When a criminal defendant is convicted, the judge orders a sentence. There are two ways a person can be convicted of a crime. First, a defendant can be convicted of a crime if their case goes to trial and the prosecution proves their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Second, a criminal defendant can be convicted if they plead guilty. Regardless of how a conviction happens, a judge must order a sentence. While it is up to a jury to decide if a criminal defendant is guilty during a trial, it is up to the judge to determine the sentence. So, how do judges determine criminal sentences? Read on to find out.
What Is Criminal Sentencing?
Before discussing how judges determine criminal sentences, it is crucial that we first discuss the meaning of criminal sentencing. A criminal sentence is the legal consequences associated with a conviction. It is said that criminal sentencing aims to prevent future crimes by the convict and other people considering committing the same offense. Criminal sentencing is also meant to punish the convict for acting criminally.
There are different types of criminal sentencing. They include the following;
- Monetary fines
- Payment of restitution
- Drug and alcohol rehabilitation (for minor offenses)
- Community service
- Life in prison (for more serious crimes)
- Death penalty (in capital murder cases)
Sentencing can include only one of the above or a combination of more than one of the above. For example, a person may be sent to jail and asked to pay monetary fines.
How Do Judges Determine Criminal Sentencing?
Determining a criminal sentence is a complex process, and judges do this on a case-by-case basis. This means you cannot predict the exact sentence a judge will order. Even people convicted of the same or similar crime may receive different sentences.
To determine criminal sentencing, judges consider several things. One of the most crucial things judges consider when determining criminal sentencing is the mandatory maximum and minimum sentencing length for a specific offense. Mandatory maximum and minimum sentencing lengths are usually set by statute. For instance, a federal mail fraud conviction carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. Judges must respect the maximum and minimum sentencing lengths set out in the statute. This means that a person convicted of federal mail fraud cannot be imprisoned for more than 20 years.
When mandatory minimum and maximum sentencing lengths do not apply, or in addition to considering mandatory minimum and maximum sentencing lengths, judges, with their own discretion, consider other numerous factors when determining sentencing. These factors are called mitigating and aggravating factors. Mitigating factors can influence a judge to lessen a sentence, whereas aggravating factors can force a judge to impose more severe penalties.
Examples of mitigating factors that can persuade a judge to less a sentence include;
- The offender is a first-time offender
- The offender expresses regret or remorse
- The offender was not the main actor
- The offender is young
- The offender committed the crime out of desperation for money or because of substance abuse
Examples of aggravating factors that can influence a judge to impose more severe penalties include;
- The offender is a repeat offender
- The offender shows no remorse
- The offense was religiously or racially motivated
- There were multiple victims
- The offense was motivated by financial or material gain
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