Criminal Law

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How a Criminal is Sentenced for a Crime

The final phase of a criminal case, absent an appeal, is sentencing. It is during the sentencing phase that the judge decides what a convicted criminal's sentence will be for the crimes that were committed. There are both objective and subjective factors that come into play during sentencing, making it one of the most important and controversial stages of any criminal case.

How a Judge Decides a Sentence

A criminal sentence most often includes a fine, incarceration or probation or any combination of these three types of punishments. The judge must consider several different things when determining the sentence. First, the judge must consider the sentencing guidelines for that particular crime in that particular jurisdiction. The sentencing guidelines take into account the particular crime committed and the defendant's criminal history. This is to ensure that an individual who is convicted of murder and who has a prior criminal history of violent crimes receives a harsher sentence then a first time convicted criminal who is found guilty of tax evasion. Second, in some jurisdictions, judges may also take into account special circumstances and the testimony of character witnesses when deciding a criminal's sentence.

Multiple Sentences for Multiple Crimes

If a criminal is convicted of multiple crimes during the same trial then the judge must decide if the sentences for each crime will be served consecutively or concurrently. For example, if a defendant is convicted of a home invasion and an armed robbery in the same trial and is sentenced to 10 years for each offense, then the judge must decide if the defendant will serve both sentences at the same time for a total of 10 years in prison or serve each sentence separately for a total of 20 years in prison.

Why Consistent Criminal Sentencing is Important

Sentencing criminals serves several important functions. Sentences are meant to deter future criminals, punish and rehabilitate convicted criminals and protect society from convicted criminals.

Some scholars argue that in order for criminal sentences to have the desired deterrent effect on future criminals, that the sentences imposed must be consistent so that would be criminals understand the likely consequences of any criminal conduct.

Each individual sentence is most applicable to the defendant who must serve the sentence. Sentences are designed to both punish and rehabilitate the criminal so that the criminal pays his or her debt to society and learns not to repeat the same mistake. The effectiveness of the American system of criminal punishments on the rehabilitation of criminals is often debated. Of course, the other benefit to criminal sentences is to protect society against a person who has been convicted of a crime.

In 2004, state and federal courts convicted over 1 million adults of crimes with the vast majority of those being convicted in state court. The state courts sentenced over 70% of those convicted to time in jail or prison. Another 28% of those convicted received probation.

Therefore, sentencing is an important topic for both those who have been convicted and the people who live in their communities.