Criminal Sentencing

If you plead guilty to a criminal charge, or if you are found guilty after a trial, the next step in the criminal process is the sentencing. Sentencing is when the court decides and orders how you will be punished for your crime. In some states and for some criminal charges, a jury may decide the sentencing.

Sentences for criminal convictions may include any combination of incarceration (in jail or prison, depending on the severity of the crime), community service, probation, restitution, fines and costs. This list is not all-inclusive, since some judges hand down non-traditional sentences instead of, or in addition to, more traditional punishments.

Even if you plead guilty to a criminal charge, or are convicted after a trial, sentencing can be a complicated and sensitive process. An experienced criminal defense lawyer may work with various professionals to position you for a favorable sentence. Your criminal defense attorney also might be able to discuss alternative sentencing options with the prosecutor that will serve an adequate punishment but also help you through rehabilitation. Furthermore, a criminal defense attorney will make sure you are not abused or sentenced more harshly than the circumstances dictate.

Jail versus Prison

In simple terms, jails are operated by local law enforcement and are either used to hold defendants before the post bond or to keep convicts who have misdemeanor jail sentences. Prison, on the other hand, is used to house those convicted of felonies, including dangerous and violent offenders, sex offenders and others. Prison terms can range from short term up to lifelong incarceration.

Sentences of incarceration may be “determinate” where the sentence is a fixed duration (for example, one year in prison) or “indeterminate” where the sentence is merely a range of time (for example, 15 years to life). If you have multiple convictions, sentences also may run concurrent and at the same time or consecutive where one sentence starts when the other sentence ends.

Community Service

Community service is unpaid work that a judge assigns to a defendant. The concept of community service is to have the defendant give back to the community he or she hurt by committing a crime. It also is used in an attempt to help rehabilitate defendants. Community service can be ordered in addition to incarceration, probation, fines and other penalties, but it is often given in lieu of jail time for minor offenses.


Probation may be ordered when the court believes the defendant does not deserve incarceration. Probation allows the defendant to remain relatively free but only so long as the court’s conditions are observed. Defendants on probation may have an active probation officer who checks on the probationer regularly, or they may be on self-regulated probation which is far more liberal. In either case, someone on probation must avoid violating the rules, otherwise they will be charge with a probation violation and may be sent to jail.

Common restrictions for probationers include the payment of fines or restitution, refraining from committing any crimes, staying away from alcohol and drugs, regular reporting to the probation officer, submitting to scheduled and random drug testing and avoiding certain places and people.


Restitution is about making things right to the people who were hurt. Fines, on the other hand, are paid to the state as a form of punishment. Restitution is paid to victims or to the state’s restitution fund to directly compensate a victim’s loss. Stolen or damaged property, physical or mental injuries, medical expenses and even lost wages from death or incapacitation all may be part of a restitution order. The victim need not be one individual. In some cases, a defendant will be ordered to pay restitution for wrongs that touched a large group of people, such as investment fraud or Ponzi schemes.

Sentencing laws and rules vary from state to state. Questions about your particular case and how sentencing may affect you should be directed to a licensed criminal defense attorney.