Overview of the Sentencing Stage in Criminal Cases

The Old Bailey, central criminal court, London
Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

One of the final stages of a criminal trial is sentencing. If you have reached the sentencing stage, that means that you have pleaded guilty or were found guilty by a jury or judge. If you are guilty of a crime, you will face punishment for your actions and that is usually sentencing by a judge. That punishment can vary widely from crime to crime.

In most states the statute that makes the action a criminal offense also establishes the maximum sentence that can be given for a conviction—for example, in the state of Georgia, the maximum fine for possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana (a misdemeanor) is $1,000 and/or up to 12 months in jail. But, judges often do not give the maximum sentence based on a variety of factors and circumstances.

Pre-Sentencing Report

If you plead guilty to a crime, whether as part of a plea deal or not, sentencing for the crime is usually done immediately. This is particularly the case when the crime is an infraction or a misdemeanor.

If the crime is a felony and the defendant is facing substantial prison time, sentencing is usually delayed until the judge in the case can hear from the prosecution, the defense, and receive a pre-sentencing report from the local probation department.

Victim Impact Statements

In a growing number of states, judges must also hear statements from the victims of the crime before sentencing. These victim impact statements can have a significant influence on the final sentence.

Possible Punishments

The judge has several punishment options that he can impose during sentencing. Those options can be imposed singularly or in combination with others. If you have been convicted, a judge can order you to:

  • Pay a fine
  • Pay restitution to the victim
  • Go to jail or prison
  • Serve a time on probation
  • Do community service
  • Complete educational remediation, counseling, or a treatment program

Discretion in Sentencing

Many states have passed laws that provide for mandatory sentencing for certain crimes, such as child molestation or drunken driving. If you are convicted of one of those crimes, the judge has little discretion in sentencing and must follow the guidelines outlined in the law.

Otherwise, judges have wide discretion in how they form their sentences. For example, a judge can order you to pay a $500 fine and serve 30 days in jail, or he can just fine you with no jail time. Also, a judge can sentence you to jail time, but suspend the sentence as long as you complete the terms of your probation.

Special Probation Terms

In the case of alcohol or drug-related convictions, the judge can order you to complete a substance abuse treatment program or in the case of a drunk driving conviction, order you to attend a driving education program.

The judge is also free to add specific restrictions to the terms of your probation, such as staying away from the victim, submitting to a search at any time, not traveling out of state, or submitting to random drug testing.

Aggravating and Mitigating Factors

Several factors can influence the final sentence the judge decides to hand down. These are called aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Some of them may include:

  • Whether or not you are a repeat offender
  • Whether or not someone was injured during the crime
  • Your background and character
  • If you express remorse or regret
  • The nature of the crime itself
  • Impact statements from the victims

The background report the judge receives from the probation department can also have an influence on the strength of the sentence. If the report indicates that you are a productive member of society who made a mistake, the sentence might be much lighter than if it indicates you are a career criminal with no real work history.

Consecutive and Current Sentences

If you were convicted or entered a guilty plea to more than one crime, the judge can impose a separate sentence for each of those convictions. The judge has the discretion to make those sentences either consecutive or concurrent.

If the sentences are consecutive, you will serve one sentence and then begin serving the next. In other words, the sentences are added to each other. If the sentences are concurrent, that means they are being served at the same time.

The Death Penalty

Most states have special laws regarding the imposing of a sentence in a death penalty case. In some cases, a judge can impose the death penalty, but in most cases, it is decided by a jury. The same jury that voted to find the defendant guilty will reconvene to hear arguments for and against the death penalty.

The jury will then deliberate to determine whether to sentence the defendant to life in prison or death by execution. In some states, the jury's decision is binding on the judge, whereas in other states, the jury's vote is merely a recommendation that the judge must consider before determining the final sentence.

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Montaldo, Charles. "Overview of the Sentencing Stage in Criminal Cases." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-sentencing-stage-970832. Montaldo, Charles. (2021, February 16). Overview of the Sentencing Stage in Criminal Cases. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-sentencing-stage-970832 Montaldo, Charles. "Overview of the Sentencing Stage in Criminal Cases." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-sentencing-stage-970832 (accessed May 28, 2023).