Written by Avvo Staff

Factors that Determine a Criminal Sentence

There are many factors that determine a convicted criminal's sentence. Severity of crime, past criminal history, circumstances surrounding the crime and adherence to state and local-level guidelines all play a vital role for the judge to consider when deciding on the appropriate punishment.

An important note: 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.

State guidelines

Many states have guidelines which provide specific maximum jail or prison time and fines. Judges can adhere to those guidelines in a strict manner or use them just as suggested punishment levels.

Severity of the crime

The severity of crime with the same basis can have varying sentences. For example, in the United States Sentencing Commission's 2009 report, the average sentence for drug crimes had a large range:

  • Those trafficking drugs received an average sentence of 48 months.
  • Those using drugs on a "communication facility" level received an average sentence of 21 months.
  • Down on the misdemeanor level, those guilty of simple possession averaged 1.2 months in county jail.

Past criminal history

Past criminal history is another factor. This can go both ways. First-time offenders may receive more lenient sentences. Multiple offenders may have their crime escalated to a felony from a misdemeanor then be sentenced accordingly.

Circumstances surrounding the crime

The circumstances surrounding a crime can influence sentencing, as well.

  • Was the offender and accessory or the central figure in the crime?
  • Were others injured?
  • Was the defendant dealing with sudden and exceptional circumstances like losing a job or a loved one?

These mitigating circumstances play a vital role.

Aggravating factors, such as the use of a weapon or criminal past, influence judges just as much if not more than mitigating factors.

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