Criminal Law

Correcting, Modifying or Reducing a Sentence

A criminal case isn't over just because a defendant's been convicted and sentenced, and he's in jail. Even if there's no appeal - asking a higher court to reverse mistakes. There are times when a sentence may be "modified," meaning corrected or reduced.

Modification rules vary by state. Most follow the federal rule. This allows modification when:

  • There's an error in the sentence imposed
  • While the defendant's in prison or serving his sentence, he helps in another criminal case 
  • Other factors apply, such as reducing a sentence based on someone's age


A sentence may be corrected if it has a math, technical or other clear error. For example, if at the sentencing hearing, you get five years in jail, but the judge's written order lists the sentence as 15 years, he can correct it. This must be done within seven days from the date the sentence is announced. After seven days, the judge lacks power to correct it.

The judge can fix an error he notices. You and your attorney should read the written sentencing order carefully. Contact the court right away if there's a mistake.

As of December 1, 2009, the seven-day period increased to 14 days.


If, after sentencing, you provide substantial help with another criminal case, sentence reduction is possible. For this to work, the prosecution or the government files a motion with the court asking for reduction. The time for seeking reduction is usually within a year of when the judge announced the sentence in court. There's an exception, though. The reduction may be made after one year if:

  • Your help involves new information. For example, 15 months after you were sentenced, you learned of a drug "king pin"'s identity and gave it to the government
  • You gave information to the prosecution within one year after sentencing, but the information wasn't useful until later on. For example, information you gave to the prosecution about other criminal activity didn't actually pan-out until over one year from the date of your sentencing
  • You had information within a year after sentencing but didn't tell the government because you didn't know the information was useful and you told the government as soon as you realized it's value. For example, if you didn't know at your conviction that someone you knew was involved in criminal activity under investigation, and you discover that fact over one year after you were sentenced, and you give the information to the government, sentence reduction is possible

Other Circumstances

Another federal law also may allow a sentence to be modified and reduced if the:

  • Director of the Bureau of Prisons (the "Director") files a motion with the court asking for reduction because of "extraordinary and compelling reasons," such as when the defendant's terminally ill 
  • Director files a motion for a reduction and defendant is 70 or older, has served at least 30 years in prison on a life sentence, and the Director believes that the defendant isn't a danger to public
  • Defendant was sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range in the US Sentencing Guidelines and that sentencing range was lowered while the defendant was serving his sentence. Either you or the Director may file a motion asking for this sentence modification. Judges can make these reductions on their own, but it's rare

Sentence modifications on these grounds may or may not be available in your state. Check those laws carefully or talk to your attorney about possible sentence reduction.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • A federal prosecutor promised to ask the judge to reduce my sentence if I "worked" for him in prison and gathered information on another case. I've been helping for over a year, and he still hasn't asked for the reduction. Can we take him to court and force him to ask for the reduction?
  • Do the prison officials have to give access to the law library so that I can file a motion for sentence reduction? If I write the motion myself, how much will you charge to review it? Does my court appointed public defender from trial have to file the motion if I ask?
  • If I'm granted a reduction, will I get credit for the time I served between the date that I filed my motion and the date the judge made a decision?

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