Written by Avvo Staff

Types of Criminal Sentences

For those convicted of a crime, the next immediate step is sentencing. That's where the judge comes in.

It's a common thought that the jury often influences sentencing, but this is not the case. The judge, often using preset guidelines relating to the specific crime, almost always issues the punishment. In fact, juries are often encouraged to ignore possible sentencing consequences when trying to determine a verdict.

There are times when the jury will be involved in sentencing, though, as mentioned, it's rare. In several states the jury helps determine if the judge can deliver the death penalty or not. In many instances, the jury will have to recommend the death penalty sentence to the judge before he or she is allowed to render it.

Prior to sentencing, defendants are allowed to make a statement. Check with your lawyer and be prepared for this moment. Often a genuine show of remorse at this time can influence sentencing.

Types of sentences

Death penalty

Mandatory death sentences are illegal in the United States. The circumstances that are necessary for the death penalty to be considered, like most sentences, fluctuate from state to state. A few examples:

  • Alabama: Intentional murder with 18 aggravating factors.
  • California: First-degree murder with special circumstances, sabotage, train wreck causing death, treason, perjury causing
  • execution of an innocent person, fatal assault by a prisoner serving a life sentence.
  • Delaware: First-degree murder with at least one statutory aggravating circumstance.
  • Louisiana: First-degree murder or treason.
  • New York: First-degree murder with one of 13 aggravating factors.
  • Texas: Criminal homicide with one of nine aggravating circumstances.
  • Utah: Aggravated murder.

On the federal level, there are numerous laws providing for the death penalty. From espionage to murder committed in a federal facility, these federal laws cover a wide variety of crimes that could lead to the death penalty.

Prison vs. jail

Those sentenced to prison will be heading to a much more stern place than those heading to jail. In the common vernacular, prison and jail ( the same usage. For law enforcement officials, there is a distinction. Those charged with misdemeanors and receiving a shorter, less severe sentence, usually receive jail time. Meaning they will be held in a local facility, usually the county jail, for the length of their imprisonment. Criminals who receive a longer sentence are said to be heading to prison. These people will typically end up in a state run facility.

Suspended sentence

A suspended sentence comes about when a judge provides the guilty party with a chance to serve probation prior to carrying out the sentence. Often, if the convicted party makes it through the probationary period without screwing up, the judge will then throw out the sentence.

If this happens, it doesn't mean your record is clean. More often than not, a suspended sentence stays on an individual's record.

First-time offenders who have committed a minor crime are the prime candidates for a suspended sentence.


Being sentenced to probation (, at least initially, keep a person out of jail. Often probation is an option for those charged with a misdemeanor.

Certain circumstances, set by the court, come with probation. Those on probation typically have to meet with a probation officer on at least a monthly basis. Their employment and residence for the time of the probation may be determined by the court. They may not be allowed to contact the victim associated with their crime. An electronic tag to monitor the person's location and actions may be involved in probation. Unsupervised probation (also called summary or informal probation) is also an option.

The length of the probationary period can be from one year to life, depending on circumstances and court location.


This is when a guilty party is sentenced to reimburse the state and victims ( for the damage caused. The court does not take your financial situation into consideration when determining restitution. They will fine a guilty party as they see fit, whether they can pay or not. A separate restitution hearing is necessary following conviction unless the guilty party agrees to the initial restitution named at sentencing.

There are three types of restitution: restitution fines, parole revocation fines and direct orders. The court can call for each in a single case or apply different combinations in varying cases.

If restitution is not paid, another trip to court will follow. There, the defendant will have to explain why payment was not made. Not paying can lead to jail time.

Alternative sentences

As more and more prisons and local jails suffer from overcrowding, many states have begun considering alternative sentences to incarceration ( These alternatives not only alleviate over-stretched resources and budgets, but also help ensure that the punishment is more fitting to the crime. Alternative sentences may include: community service, electronic monitoring, house arrest, work release, city/private jail, drug courts, drug educational programs and sober living.

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