After a defendant has been found guilty of a crime, he will go through a sentencing hearing where he is told what punishment he will serve for the crime he committed. In the sentencing hearing, both the defense attorney and prosecutor will present evidence and arguments regarding what they believe would be a fair sentence. Ultimately, the judge will decide the punishment in all cases aside from the death penalty, but how does he make these decisions? A number of factors come into play.
State Sentencing Guidelines
California law dictates the proper sentence for different crimes. In some cases, laws against particular crimes detail a specific penalty. When the law doesn’t specify a specific sentence guideline for a given crime, it will fall into a broader category, for example, most misdemeanors in California are punishable by 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000, while a “gross” or “aggravated” misdemeanor will be punishable by 12 months in jail and a fine of $1,000.
Most sentencing guidelines only specify a maximum sentence, but a few also list minimum penalties. For example, a second time DUI will result in a minimum of 96 hours of jail time.
San Diego County uses a sentencing guideline system for misdemeanors. Judges are able to deviate from the guidelines and, especially in an environment where jail sentences include a potential exposure to Covid-19, they are looking for alternatives to actual jail terms. Judges look to defense lawyers for creative sentencing arguments.
Felony sentencing is a more formal process where the probation department prepares a report and recommendation to the judge. Often the sentence is pre-determined by a deal between the defendant and the prosecutor. Sentencing if probation is granted will range from no jail to up to a year in jail. If probation is denied, the defendant will be sentenced to prison.
The prison sentence range is drastic and will depend on the crime, and can be as short as a maximum of three years to life imprisonment. It can be a complicated process because enhancements for prior crimes and aggravated circumstances of the current case can also play into the decision.
How Judges Decide on Sentences
A judge has a lot of leeway in deciding the appropriate sentence to impose for a given crime and they are expected to consider quite a few factors when making their ruling. A sentence should not be excessive, but still be sufficiently long to punish the wrongdoer, provide a sense of justice to the victim, deter similar criminal conduct, rehabilitate the defendant, protect the community from other crimes by the defendant, and reflect the seriousness of the offense.
As such, they will consider a number of factors that may influence them to increase or decrease the penalty. These may include a defendant’s:
- criminal history
- record while incarcerated, on parole or on probation, if applicable
- risk to public safety
- admission of guilt and feelings of remorse
- history of drug or alcohol abuse
- psychological profile
- attempts to make restitution
The judge will also look at the details of the offense itself, including:
- the severity of the crime
- the intent of the defendant
- what role the defendant played in the crime
- whether someone was seriously injured as a result of the criminal act
- whether a weapon was used
- how vulnerable the victim was
- the impact on the victim
- the monetary value, if any, related to the offense
- if the act was a hate crime or gang crime
What Options Does a Judge Have?
While most people are aware that the judge can decide on the length of a convicted offender’s sentence, and the amount of fines and/or restitution an offender must pay, they aren’t aware that she can also make other decisions that will dramatically impact the defendant’s future as well. Other important rulings a judge can make include:
- recommending probation or another alternative to incarceration such as community service
- whether or not to suspend the sentence
- whether a defendant convicted of multiple offenses should be able to serve the sentences all at once (concurrent) or one after another (consecutive)
- ordering the defendant to undergo courses or programs to address issues such as drug or alcohol addiction or anger management
Once a judge has made her decision and sentenced an offender, it is particularly difficult to change these terms in most situations. In fact, one of the only ways to overturn most rulings is through the appeals process. Sentencing errors on felonies is the most basis for reversal in the Court of Appeal.
It’s also worth adding that a court order is legally binding, so someone sentenced to finish a DUI class must finish the class as part of their probation or they may be subject to further legal penalties such as jail time.
With all this in mind, it’s easy to see how important it is to have a top criminal lawyer in your corner at the sentencing hearing in San Diego. If you have been accused of any crime, contact Peter M. Liss. He can help you not only fight the charges, but also work for the minimal sentencing if you are convicted. You can schedule a free initial consultation at his office located across the street from the Vista courthouse by calling (760) 643-4050.
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