A criminal defendant hopes he never has to participate in a sentencing hearing, because only people who plead out their cases or who are found guilty after trial are sentenced by a judge. The reality, however, is that many criminal cases result in pleas and post-trial convictions. It is therefore necessary to understand the mechanics of a sentencing hearing and to prepare to present evidence favorable to the defendant in an effort to convince the judge to impose the most lenient sentence possible.
After a defendant is arraigned in court, several months pass during which the Commonwealth is obligated to provide its evidence to the defendant. This discovery process is useful because it will allow the defendant to evaluate the strength of the Commonwealth’s case and to decide whether to risk going to trial. Once a defendant has made the decision to plead out his case, there are several options depending on the charge.
An Alford plea is a procedure where the defendant admits there is enough evidence for a judge or jury to find him guilty, but the defendant continues to deny the charges against him. These types of pleas are rare because most judges take the position that a person who is pleading guilty to a crime should be required to admit that he is guilty. Alford pleas are most commonly accepted in cases where the defendant committed a crime while under the influence of drugs or alcohol and therefore is unable to remember the conduct that led to the charges against him. Once an Alford plea is accepted, the judge will impose a sentence just like in any other case.
Probationary sentences typically fall into three categories:
The defendant admits he committed the crime, but the judge continues the case without a guilty finding for a period of time. If probation is successfully completed, the case will be dismissed at the conclusion of the probationary period and the defendant can truthfully assert he was not convicted of a crime (since a guilty finding never entered).
The defendant admits he committed the crime (or is convicted at trial) and the judge imposes a guilty finding. The case remains open for a period of time and the defendant is typically obligated to complete probationary conditions such as anger management programs or substance abuse programs. If the defendant violates his probation, the judge has discretion to sentence him to up to the maximum penalty.
The defendant admits he committed the crime (or it convicted at trial), the judge imposes a guilty finding, and the defendant is sentenced to jail. However, the jail sentence is suspended (not immediately imposed) for a probationary period. If the defendant successfully completes his probation, he will never go to jail. If the defendant violates his probation, the judge has the discretion to impose the jail sentence (the judge is limited to imposing the exact length of the suspended sentence and is not permitted to impose a longer or shorter sentence).
A defendant who violates the terms of his probation may face significant consequences, which are described here.
These are the most serious sentences, as state prisons house the most dangerous and violent inmates. A state prison sentence contains a minimum number of years the defendant must serve and a maximum number of years the defendant may serve. For example, a defendant may be sentenced to serve not more than seven, but not less than five years in state prison. The parole board determines when the inmate is ultimately released from prison.
The defendant is sentenced to serve a period of time in a county jail, which is where low-level offenders are locked up. Unlike a state prison sentence, a house of correction sentence is one number (for example, two years in the House of Correction, committed) and in most cases the inmate becomes parole eligible after serving half of his sentence.
The defendant is sentenced to jail, but he is not initially obligated to serve the entire sentence. For example, a defendant might be sentenced to two years in the House of Correction, with one year to serve and the balance suspended for two years. In this scenario, the defendant would go to jail for the initial portion of the sentence (one year) and then be released on probation. If he violated his probation, he could be returned to jail to finish the sentence (the remaining one year). Split jail sentences are only available for House of Correction (and not state prison) sentences.
Judges have wide latitude in determining appropriate sentences. However, there are some crimes that require a judge to sentence the defendant to a minimum mandatory jail sentence. Examples include serious charges like murder and aggravated rape of a child, along with some less serious charges like unlawfully carrying a gun.
All of the sentences discussed above (except for continuances without a finding) are available to defendants after they are found guilty by judges or juries. The main difference is that when a defendant pleads out his case, he generally knows what the sentence will be ahead of time. When a defendant loses at trial, on the other hand, the judge can sentence him up to the maximum penalty and the defendant is not notified prior to the sentencing hearing what his punishment will be. As a practical matter, most judges impose harsher sentences following a trial than they would have imposed on a plea.
Judges consider a variety of factors in determining an appropriate sentence. The most important factor is the defendant’s prior criminal record. A defendant who has never before been arrested is obviously going to get a more lenient sentence than a career criminal. Defendants can also take actions while their cases are pending to demonstrate they are deserving of a more favorable sentence. A defendant who is charged with beating up his wife might do well by entering into counseling to address his anger issues. A defendant who commits a crime as a result of his drug addiction will be smart to enter a detox program before he is sentenced.
In some respects, the sentencing hearing is the most important event in court, and it is important that all defendants who are going to be sentenced be represented by an experienced Middlesex County criminal defense attorney.