Criminal Law


There is good reason to worry about the penalties that come with a criminal conviction. A criminal sentence can have life-altering consequences. Because there are a lot of factors that affect sentencing, it can be difficult to know what the potential sentence is for the criminal charge you are facing.

Fortunately, you can get a reasonably good idea of the potential range of penalties by knowing some of the basic concepts and the circumstances of your case.

Criminal Sentencing Basics

The most important factors that influence criminal sentencing are:

  • Federal and state sentencing laws: Criminal laws typically have minimum and maximum penalties associated with a conviction. Some laws may also require mandatory minimum sentences, meaning judges cannot sentence a criminal defendant to less than the law demands.
  • Sentencing guidelines: Federal and state governments also have sentencing guidelines that attempt to make sentencing as objective and consistent as possible. These guidelines will have an upper and lower range of possible sentences. Guidelines also include any factors a judge should consider when determining the sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that these guidelines are non-binding, so judges can legally deviate from them for a good reason.
  • Plea deals: To avoid the worst outcome in a criminal case, a defendant can negotiate with the prosecution and reach a deal. The plea deal will usually give something to the defendant, like dropping a more serious charge, in exchange for pleading guilty or no contest to a lesser charge.

The court sentences a defendant according to federal or state sentencing guidelines, what the prosecution is seeking as a sentence, and any other legal factors that would make a sentence more or less severe. For example, a juvenile defendant charged with theft will likely face a different sentence than an adult charged with the same crime who has a criminal history. This is because juvenile offenders are generally treated more leniently, while offenders with a criminal record can face longer sentences.

United States Sentencing

If you are facing federal criminal charges, you will be subject to federal laws and federal sentencing guidelines. Sentencing laws are complex. Depending on the crime, you could be subject to mandatory minimum sentencing, a "truth in sentencing" law, and the crime you are charged with could have a range of possible penalties.

States also have their own criminal laws and sentencing guidelines.

These laws are discussed in more detail below.

Sentencing Guidelines

Sentencing guidelines are comprehensive guidelines judges use in sentencing. However, they are not mandatory. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that making the guidelines mandatory would violate the Sixth Amendment since they include factors that are not always proven beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury. In other words, when issuing a sentence, a judge cannot use evidence that wasn't part of the trial.

Guidelines generally use a points system or a worksheet to determine the sentence. Guidelines can also recommend probation, parole, or another alternative sentence.

Judges who depart from the guidelines must write all of the factors and reasons why a departure is appropriate. All sentences can be appealed; however, if a judge is within the guidelines when issuing a sentence, it is generally presumed to be reasonable. Still, any criminal defendant can always ask a higher court to review their sentence.

The Death Penalty

Several states and the federal government allow capital punishment for certain crimes. All prisoners currently on death row were convicted of murder, however, and in the modern era, the death penalty is typically reserved for first-degree murder charges.

A murder conviction does not always mean the death penalty, even if state law allows it. Prosecutors must seek the death penalty for a judge to order it as a sentence. Criminal defendants facing the death penalty can sometimes reach a plea deal to serve a life sentence instead of the death penalty.

Mandatory Sentencing

Mandatory minimum sentencing means that convictions must include at least the minimum sentence in the law. Originally part of the "tough on crime" political movement of the 1980s, mandatory minimum sentences are geared toward creating uniform, significant penalties for certain crimes.

Mandatory minimum sentences are controversial. Activists and some politicians still argue for reform, claiming that mandatory minimums give prosecutors more power when negotiating a plea deal, because they can charge the defendant with a sentence that carries a significant mandatory minimum sentence. It is also controversial because some non-violent drug offenses carry mandatory minimum sentences.

A related law is the "three strikes law," which started in California. These laws require a severe penalty after a third conviction. These are also controversial and the target of reform, as some people may be currently serving life sentences for committing three petty, non-violent offenses.

Finally, there are "truth in sentencing" laws that eliminate the possibility of parole, which is the early release from prison. If you are sentenced under a truth in sentencing law, you will serve your entire sentence in prison.

The net effect of these laws is to take away the power of the courts to issue a sentence, instead leaving it up to state and federal lawmakers.


Probation is an alternative sentence available for some crimes. When on probation, offenders do not serve time behind bars and can instead live at home, work, and have some amount of mobility, for example being able to drive to work or school.

There can be numerous conditions to probation. At a minimum, if you're out on probation you will need to check in regularly with your probation officer. Other typical conditions of probation include drug tests, looking for or keeping a job, and restrictions on where you can travel. The conditions can depend on the crime. For example, a person convicted of drug possession may have to successfully complete treatment for substance abuse.

Violating any of the conditions of probation is a crime. So, for example, if you are charged with petty theft while on probation you will likely face two charges: petty theft and a probation violation.


Parole is similar to probation, but it occurs after imprisonment. Parole is the early release from prison. It allows criminal offenders the opportunity to rejoin society and become productive members of the community.

States and the federal government handle parole differently. Some states require parole to be a part of the sentence. The federal government will conduct hearings for eligible prisoners to grant parole, called a parole hearing.

A judge can sometimes exclude parole as part of the sentence. This is common for serious crimes that carry a life sentence, for example. This also happens under truth in sentencing laws.

Research More About Sentencing

LawInfo has several resources for you to use in learning more about sentencing. Here you can find articles explaining more about the legal terms and concepts in this article. LawInfo has also compiled data on federal sentencing from the United States Sentencing Commission, along with infographics highlighting trends and noteworthy statistics. These tools should provide the information needed to further understand criminal sentencing, including the range of possible sentences for various federal crimes.

Questions About Sentencing?

Sentencing laws are complex but hugely important in a criminal case. For most criminal defendants, the question is relevant not only for what will happen if they are convicted, but may also influence their decision to enter into a plea deal.

If you have questions about a possible criminal sentence, what the prosecution is seeking, or if a plea deal is fair, you can research and contact an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area.