How does a judge decide on a sentence?

On Behalf of | Nov 24, 2021 | Criminal Defense |

Judges sometimes make the news because of the sentences they hand down in criminal cases. They can cause a public outcry when they give someone a lenient sentence or because people consider a sentence too harsh.

The United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) sets sentencing guidelines for federal crimes. Most states, including South Carolina, have sentencing guidelines commissions to provide judges guidance for state-level crimes. Yet, judges still have a lot of flexibility within that.

3 things judges consider when sentencing

Here are some of the things a judge will take into account:

  1. What alternatives the law allows: Jail time is not mandatory for all crimes. If a judge is permitted to use non-custodial options, one of your defense strategies may be to push for probation, community service or some other alternative sentence.
  2. Previous convictions: Imagine that the police charge you with shoplifting because store security found an unpaid item in your bag. If you have never been in trouble with the police before, a judge is more likely to believe that you do not know how it got there. Even if they find you guilty, they may consider it a one-time mistake. If you have a series of convictions for similar offenses, the judge may decide that being lenient has failed to convince you to change your ways and impose a stricter sentence.
  3. How you act in court: Let’s say you are accused of assaulting someone due to an argument that got out of hand. If you appear sorry that events escalated, and the person suffered an injury, a judge may consider whether you showed remorse and reduce any sentence accordingly. If you stand in the dock giving your accuser the evil eye and telling them that they had better watch their back, a judge may decide the streets are safer without you.

If you cannot persuade a court to dismiss the charges against you or reduce them to a lesser charge, you need to focus on limiting the sentence. If you do not succeed at the time, you might be able to appeal a sentence later.


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