Criminal Law

What Types of Sentences Are There?

By Janet Portman, Attorney
Criminal punishment can take many forms.

Sentences vary according to the severity of the crime. Felony sentences are the most severe; misdemeanor sentences are less so, and punishments for infractions are the least serious. Here are some types of punishment:

  • Probation. Probation allows the defendant to avoid spending time in jail or prison, though it may be granted after an initial, short time in jail. An out-of-custody probationer must meet the terms and conditions of his release, which typically include remaining arrest-free, paying restitution to the victim, attending counseling, avoiding certain people or groups of people (victims, gang members), and maintaining employment.
  • Fines. A criminal fine can be imposed for infractions (minor traffic violations), most misdemeanors, and felonies. The size of the fine can range from less than $100 to many thousands of dollars. Fines are not the same as restitution; the money goes to the government as a way to partially offset the cost of prosecuting the defendant.
  • Forfeiture. For some crimes, the judge may order the defendant to forfeit, or give up, property that was involved with or used in conjunction with the crime. For example, a judge may order the defendant to forfeit a car that was used to transport illegal drugs.
  • Jail time. Jails are maintained by the local government and are intended for those awaiting trial, misdemeanants, and certain felons who have received probation plus jail time. In most states, a jail sentence is less than one year.
  • Prison time. Prisons are run by the state, and house people convicted of felonies. Sentences range from slightly over a year to life in prison without parole.
  • Death. In extremely serious cases that have been tried as “death penalty cases,” the jury may return a verdict of death. These inmates are housed in special units of the state prison.

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