The law in your area says it in plain language: Anyone convicted of committing this crime will have to pay a fine of $1,000, spend 30 days in jail, or both. So when you were convicted of that crime, you thought the harshest sentence you could get was the fine and jail time. But, the sentencing judge gave you a $2,500 fine and six months in jail. How'd that happen?

When it comes to punishing a criminal defendant (the person convicted of committing a crime), it's not always clear what the sentence will be. That's because the federal criminal laws, as well as most states' criminal laws, call for sentence enhancements. That means harder punishments than defendants would normally get for committing the crime.

What Are Sentence Enhancements?

Generally, sentence enhancements are facts and circumstances that, if present in your case, allow the sentencing judge to increase or "enhance" the sentence that normally applies to the crime. When it comes to federal crimes, a judge will look at the US Sentencing Guidelines (USSG). The USSGs have sentence enhancements for many crimes. Likewise, almost every state has some type of sentence enhancement system.

Some examples of facts and circumstances that usually lead to a sentence enhancement include:

  • Prior convictions. Defendants who have one or more prior convictions at the time they're being sentenced for a current conviction will likely have a more severe sentence imposed on the current conviction than the sentence would've been without prior convictions. Usually, it doesn't matter if a prior conviction was for a "misdemeanor," a less -serious crime, like shoplifting or DUI, or a more serious crime, or "felony," like armed robbery
  • Habitual offender. This enhancement may go by the name of "recidivist," "repeat" or "persistent offender," or "three-strikes" laws. Typically, this enhancement is a bit different than one for a prior conviction. Here, if you have two prior felony convictions, the sentence on your third (and later) felony conviction will be the maximum amount allowed under the law. Depending on the crime, this could be several years in prison, maybe even for life
  • Weapons. Using a gun or other deadly weapon while committing a crime, and sometimes merely having a weapon in your possession at the time of the crime, usually leads to a harsher sentence
  • Location of the crime. This is common for drug-related crimes. Your sentence may be increased if you sell illegal drugs in a school zone or near a public playground
  • Victim's age. A crime committed against a child or minor usually will be treated more severely than if the was committed against an adult. The same may be true even if the child wasn't the victim, but was present at the time. For example, your sentence for a DUI/DWI conviction may be increased if a child was in the car when you were driving while intoxicated or impaired

These are just a few of the more common examples. The facts and circumstances of your case, and the particular law you were convicted of violating, will determine what enhancements, if any, apply to your case. You should check the state or federal  laws for any sentence enhancements that may apply to you. If you have any questions, you should talk to your attorney as soon as possible.

Why Use Them?

Sentence enhancements are supposed to "deter" crime, that is, make it less likely that someone will commit a crime, either for the first time or as a repeat offender. If someone is thinking about robbing a bank, is it less likely that he'll actually do it if he knows beforehand that he's almost certainly looking at prison time? Are the odds lowered even more if he knows that the prison term will be longer if he uses a gun? These questions aren't easy to answer, and they're open to debate. However, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) collect statistics on such questions.

Sentence enhancements also help to make sure that the "punishment fits the crime." After all, shouldn't the person who stole something from a store by hiding it in his pants pocket have a less severe sentence the person who takes the same thing but uses a gun or hurts a store employee when he takes it?

Finally, sentence enhancements help keep the public safe by making sure that people who commit crimes over and over again are taken off the streets and jailed for a long time.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Will I get a harsher sentence on my robbery conviction if I had an unloaded gun in my coat pocket at the time of the crime?
  • A co-defendant and I were convicted of armed bank robbery. During the robbery, only he had a gun, but the judge gave me a sentence enhancement, too, for using a gun in the robbery. Why does that enhancement apply to me?
  • Is there a limit in the number of enhancements that can be used? I mean, can my sentence be enhanced for having a prior conviction, using a deadly weapon, and endangering the safety of a child, all at the same time?

Tagged as: Criminal Law, sentence enhancements, harder punishments, criminal lawyer