Crimes are punished according to their seriousness. More serious crimes are given harsher penalties.  

Types of Punishment

Punishment may include:

  • A fine
  • Term of imprisonment (time in jail or prison)
  • Probation or parole
  • Restitution (repayment) to victims
  • The death penalty

In some states, judges can give other punishments, such as community service.

Penalties for crimes vary greatly from state to state. They reflect the policy decisions made by courts and lawmakers. For example, a state with a lot of cattle ranching may punish cattle theft very seriously because the cattle business important to the state’s economy. Another state may punish it less severely because cattle theft it is not of great concern.

In deciding an appropriate sentence, a judge may take into account your:

  • Prior criminal record
  • Age
  • Other circumstances surrounding the crime, including your cooperation with law enforcement officers

Sentencing Guidelines

In the federal criminal justice system, courts follow the United States Sentencing Guidelines (USSG). The United States Sentencing Commission, a federal agency, publishes these guidelines.

Federal laws usually set maximum and minimum punishments.  The USSG sets out factors courts must consider to determine the exact sentence within those maximums and minimums.

Under the USSG, persons convicted of crimes are assigned “points” for certain factors, including:

  • The amount of loss to victims
  • Whether a weapon was used in the crime
  • The age or helplessness of the victims

The guidelines also consider a person’s prior criminal history. Repeat offenders receive more “points” in the guidelines and thus more severe sentences.

The guidelines significantly limit the freedom of federal judges to decide sentences. The guidelines also restrict the ability of federal prosecutors to plea bargain. A few states have made sentencing rules similar to the federal sentencing guidelines.

Plea Bargains

The vast majority of criminal cases are disposed of by plea bargains. A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecutor and the accused person. The accused may agree to plead guilty to a crime in return for a lesser sentence. A plea bargain can occur before a trial or even during a trial.

In state criminal justice systems, plea bargains are usually extremely flexible and may result in:

  • The complete dismissal of all charges
  • Reducing jail time to the payment of a fine 
  • Agreeing to life in prison in order to avoid the death penalty

In the federal court system, the United States Sentencing Guidelines greatly limit the ability of prosecutors to enter into plea bargains.

Probation and Parole

Probation is the suspension of jail time. If you are convicted of a crime, you may be sentenced to probation and allowed to remain living in the community under the supervision of a probation officer.

Conditions of probation may require you to keep a job or attend counseling. Violating these terms may cause the court to end the probation and send you to jail to serve out the original sentence. At the end of the term of probation you are free of the state’s supervision.

Parole is the conditional release of a prisoner before the prison sentence has expired.

Parole decisions are made by a separate state agency, or commission, which considers the applications of prisoners for early release from imprisonment.

Typically, parole is granted on certain conditions that must be carefully followed. For example, a parolee, or person on parole, may be required to check in with a parole officer each week. Violating these conditions can result in the agency revoking the parole and sending the parolee back to prison.

Many states have passed sex offender registration laws. They require convicted sex offenders to register with local police departments. The police then warn individuals and groups about sex offenders in their communities. 

Courts have generally found these laws do not violate the constitutional rights of offenders. The specific requirements of these laws vary from state to state.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What can my attorney do to get my sentence reduced to probation?
  • When does it make sense for an innocent person to agree to a plea bargain? 
  • Can my attorney work out a deal with the prosecution even before charges are filed?
  • Is it too late to work out a deal on sentencing after I’ve already pled guilty?