If a defendant is found guilty of committing a crime, sentencing immediately follows the criminal trial. Sometimes the law that a criminal has violated specifies a punishment. Punishments for slight infractions often will include probation, fines, short-term incarceration, payment of restitution to the victim, community service or drug and alcohol rehabilitation. In cases involving serious crimes or felonies, especially cases where the death penalty is called for, convicted defendants have the right to a Jury Sentencing Trial. Sentencing, which is either the trial’s final stage or the focus of a separate Sentencing Trial, also dictates a key term of parole, the Parole Eligibility Date. This date represents the earliest moment at which a prisoner may be released from sentence.
Judges and juries decide punishments according to a case’s facts, but their decisions must (1) consider Federal Sentencing Guidelines, if the defendant is convicted in the Federal Court System and (2) conform to the Rules of Criminal Procedure, which specify different types of punishments for different types of criminal violations. The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure differ from those of the States, each of which maintains its own Rules.
In addition to standard procedural regulations, some States and jurisdictions use standardized sentencing. Standardized sentencing, which pairs crimes with punishments, helps judges treat all criminals who commit the same class of crime with the same battery of punitive measures. Regardless of circumstances surrounding the crime, if a suspect is convicted, s/he receives the same penalty as would any other defendant convicted for the same violation. Extenuating circumstances or details specific to a case have no effect upon sentencing. Punishment is pegged to the crime itself. For example, if a defendant is found guilty of robbery, the convict must serve the punishment associated with the crime of robbery. Misdemeanors carry a lesser penalty than felonies, however, each jurisdiction decides a range of punitive measures within which judges’ sentences must conform. Normally, sentences at both the State and Federal levels are determinate in nature, meaning that both a beginning and an end of incarceration are part of a prison sentence. Indeterminate sentences, or sentences without a specified end, are increasingly rare. Although the Federal Sentencing Guidelines of 1987 established a uniform sentencing policy for all criminals convicted within the U.S. Federal Court System, one that privileges determinate sentences, sentencing, and hence, parole, are still decided on a case-by-case basis.
The content on this page was developed in partnership with the Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.