Being convicted of more than one crime may have a big impact on a criminal defendant's sentence or "punishment." After all, more crimes should mean more punishment, or at least separate punishment for each conviction, right? That's not always the case. When it comes to sentencing a defendant with multiple convictions, the judge usually has a choice to order the sentence on each conviction to run "concurrently" or "consecutively." This decision could make the difference of many years in prison.

What Are "Consecutive" and "Concurrent" Sentences?

A consecutive sentence (also called a "cumulative" sentence) is when a defendant has been convicted of more than one crime, usually at the same trial, and the sentences for each crime are "tacked" together, so that sentences are served one after the other. For example, if a defendant is convicted of three crimes that carry sentences of five, three, and two years, he'll serve 10 years in prison, assuming he doesn't get parole or some other sentence reduction of credit. In other words, sentences are served one at a time. 

A concurrent sentence is when sentences on more than one crime "run" or are served at the same time, rather than one after the other. For instance, if a defendant's three crimes carry sentences of five, three, and two years, the maximum time he'll spend in jail is five years.

The convictions don't have to come at the same time, although they usually do. That is, a sentence on a new conviction may be ordered to run concurrently or consecutively with a sentence that a defendant's already serving. For example, say a defendant escapes from jail while serving a sentence for arson, and while he's out he commits a robbery. If convicted of robbery, the judge may order the sentence for robbery to run concurrently or consecutively with the time left on the arson sentence.

A federal judge may also order the sentence for a criminal conviction to run concurrently or consecutively with the sentence on a conviction in state court. However, in most cases, the defendant must have been sentenced in state court first. For example, if a defendant is convicted in federal court but has yet to be convicted in state court, the federal judge typically can't order his federal sentence to run concurrently or consecutively with any sentence he might receive in state court.

How It Works

The rules on concurrent and consecutive sentences vary depending on whether your case is in federal or state court; states' rules vary, too. It's important that you check the laws that apply to your case to see if and when sentences on multiple convictions may be ordered to run concurrently or consecutively.

When it comes to sentencing, the federal courts use the US Sentencing Guidelines ("Guidelines"). They work like a math formula that calculates the length of a sentence for practically any federal conviction. As for concurrent and consecutive sentences, there's a special Guidelines and federal law that the courts need to use.

In general, sentences on multiple convictions are supposed to run concurrently, unless the court decides otherwise or the specific law that defendant broke says differently. For example, a statute may read: Any prison sentence imposed on a conviction for violating this law shall be served consecutively with any other sentence that may apply to the defendant's case.

If a judge wants to order the sentences to run consecutively or concurrently, she must state so specifically in the sentencing order, which is the court document that sets a defendant's sentences. If she doesn't do so, the sentences will run consecutively automatically. Also, when the judge is deciding if concurrent or consecutive sentences should be ordered, she must consider several factors, such as the:

  • Nature and circumstances of the defendant's crime, together with the defendant's criminal history
  • Need for the defendant's sentence to reflect the seriousness of the crime; to deter or prevent others from committing crimes; to protect the public from future crimes by the defendant, and; to provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care or other correctional treatment
  • Kinds of sentences available, such as prison terms, probation and fines
  • Sentencing "range" established by the Guidelines, that is, the minimum and maximum sentence a defendant may get according the Guidelines' formula

Convincing the judge to make your sentences run concurrently can save you years of prison time. But to get that benefit, it's important that you understand how the sentencing laws work. Carefully study the laws that apply to your case, and if you have any questions, talk to an experienced criminal law attorney immediately.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I made a plea deal with the prosecution and it promised that my sentences would run concurrently. Does the judge have to honor that agreement, or can she order my sentences to run consecutively?
  • A co-defendant and I were both convicted of burglary and arson. The judge gave him concurrent sentences but I got consecutive sentences. Shouldn't we have received the same sentences?
  • If my state and federal sentences are ordered to run consecutively, will I serve all of the time in the same prison, or will I be transferred to federal prison after I've served by state sentence?

Tagged as: Criminal Law, multiple convictions, criminal lawyer