The sentencing stage follows trial, at least in cases where the defendant receives at least one guilty verdict. The Office of the United States Attorneys explains that sentencing generally occurs “a few months after the defendant is found guilty.”
The sentencing stage is a supremely important stage in your trial. Though you may have been found guilty at this point, there may still be a wide range of potential punitive outcomes in your case. Sentencing will determine the exact punishments you will face for your conviction (pending appeal).
What Happens During the Sentencing Stage?
The judge presiding over your case will determine which legal penalties you face. Depending on the nature of your offense, potential legal sanctions may include the following:
- Jail time
- Prison time
- Restitution paid to the victim
- Other legal penalties
The judge will consider the facts of your case in determining your sentence. The severity of the allegations against you, your criminal history, and your demeanor during trial and at sentencing may all factor into the judge's decision.
Another factor in your sentencing will be the federal sentencing guidelines. These guidelines may put a floor and ceiling on the legal penalties a judge can issue.
What Are Federal Sentencing Guidelines?
Federal sentencing guidelines are not always binding, but they are a commonly-used framework for judges to determine criminal sentences.
As the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) explains, certain crimes carry mandatory minimum sentences. This means that a judge cannot impose a sentence less than the mandatory minimums require, even if they want to. In these cases, the federal sentencing guidelines are, in fact, binding.
In other cases, the judge may adhere to federal sentencing guidelines by choice. The USSC explains that federal sentencing guidelines apply to cases of a single guilty verdict, as well as cases where the defendant has been convicted of multiple offenses. The latter cases are called combined offenses.
The USSC's federal sentencing guidelines account for the following:
- The seriousness of the offense(s): The crimes you have been accused of will fall into one of the 43 categories of offense severity. Each crime also has a base offense level that helps the judge determine the severity of the criminal conviction.
- The details of the offense: While terms like murder, sexual assault, or theft may apply to a broad array of cases, the details of each of those cases differ. The judge will account for the unique characteristics of the crime in question. The USSC uses the example of two fraud cases, one which involves a loss of $6,000 versus another involving a $50,000 loss. The latter case is more serious, and sentencing guidelines reflect this.
- Adjustments: A judge can adjust an offense to qualify as more or less serious. If a defendant participated in a crime but was not the main perpetrator, a judge may adjust the offense level downward. If a defendant showed particularly predatory or heinous behavior, the judge may adjust the offense level upward.
- The defendant's acceptance of responsibility: If a defendant accepts responsibility for the offense they have been convicted of, the judge may downgrade the offense level. This is a difficult matter, though, because admitting to an offense may affect the outcome of your appeal.
- The defendant's criminal history (or lack thereof): The court will assess a defendant's criminal history, with categories ranging from Criminal History I (least serious) to Criminal History VI (most serious).
The USSC explains that, in cases where sentencing guidelines are not mandatory, a judge may “depart” from the recommended sentencing range. Whether the judge chooses a lesser or harsher sentence than the guidelines recommend, they must explain in writing why they departed from the USSC's sentencing guidelines.
The court may hear from the victim during the sentencing phase. Depending on the nature of the victim's testimony, their words could have a negative or positive effect on your sentence.
What Role Does an Attorney Play in the Sentencing Process?
Your defense attorney will be your advocate throughout the sentencing process. If the court permits, your attorney may:
- Reach an agreement with the prosecutor to recommend a certain sentence, or at least not fight against your attorney's sentencing goals
- Present character witnesses and question them in a manner that highlights your positive characteristics
- Arrange for experts to testify on your behalf, and question those experts
- Make oral arguments as to why the judge should grant you leniency
- Counter any arguments by the prosecutor seeking a steeper sentence than you deserve
Your attorney will also prepare you for sentencing. They may help you determine what you will say to the judge, the alleged victims in your case, and to anybody else involved in your case. Your attorney may also help you make restitution to those you have allegedly harmed, which may show contrition for any offenses you have been convicted of.
How Should a Defendant Act During the Sentencing Process?
It is generally best practice to be respectful and remorseful during sentencing. The USSC has formally included “acceptance of responsibility” as a way for a defendant to achieve a lesser sentence, and you should recognize this.
However, you should not necessarily take formal responsibility for the offense you have been convicted of. Your appeal may still be pending at the time of sentencing, and admitting to an offense could compromise your appeal. Your attorney should provide explicit instructions for what to say and what not to say during sentencing.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento knows how to get you the best results possible--call 888-535-3686 today for a consultation.