Without question, one of the most difficult and emotional challenges anyone will ever face is going through a criminal trial. If a defendant is convicted, they face fines, community service, and prison time as a result. But how exactly is a sentence determined? Contrary to what many people believe, it’s the judge, not the jury, that usually decides the punishment.
For some crimes, there is an actual state or federal statute that prescribes the punishment for a particular crime. For example “a fine of $1,000, or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both.” In situations like this, a judge can determine a sentence for any monetary amount and/or jail time up to that limit.
Most statutes offer punishment within a prescribed sentencing range and a judge will determine the punishment for a crime based on a variety of other factors.
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Aggravating and Mitigating Circumstances
In addition to considering any guidelines laid out in the law regarding appropriate punishments, a judge will also consider what are called “aggravating” and “mitigating” circumstances. This refers to the offender’s role in the crime, the severity, and the offender’s history.
Examples of these circumstances are:
- Whether the offender is a “first-time” or repeat offender
- Whether the offender was an accessory (helping the main offender) or the main offender
- Whether the offender committed the crime under great personal stress or duress
- Whether anyone was hurt, and whether the crime was committed in a manner that was unlikely to result in anyone being hurt
- Whether the offender was particularly cruel to a victim, or particularly destructive, vindictive, etc.
All of these factors, both individually and together, can have a significant impact on how a judge determines the sentence for a crime.
If a defendant has a criminal record of committing the same types of crimes over and over, it may appear to a judge that the previous criminal punishments have not been adequate and could sway the judge to impose a harsher punishment.
In some cases, typically those for nonviolent and lesser crimes, the offender’s attorney can ask for alternative sentences to jail time. Alternatives include things like work furlough, electronic home confinement (ankle monitor), and sometimes community service.
It will be entirely up to a judge to decide if an alternative sentence is appropriate in a given case, and they will look closely at aggravating and mitigating circumstances to make a final decision.
Working With Your Attorney
The last factor that can have a potential impact on the outcome of a trial is the defendant’s attorney. A good attorney will vigorously defend their client throughout the trial and exhaust every possible option regarding sentencing.
To learn more about the criminal trial process and sentencing laws, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney and talk to them about your case.