How do I find out what a likely sentence is for a given criminal charge?

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Question:

I've been charged with a crime and I'm not sure whether I should hire a lawyer. I want to know what kind of penalties might be included in the sentence if I'm convicted. How can I find out?

Answer:

It can be hard for a defendant to find out what sentence a judge is likely to hand out in a given case. This information can’t be found in statutes or court rules. Rather, information about a judge’s sentencing proclivities is part of the hidden law that lawyers learn from being in the trenches. Defendants who want to know what the punishment is likely to be upon conviction might take the following steps:

Pay a private defense attorney for an hour of consultation.

An experienced defense attorney can often make accurate predictions as to likely punishment, and may well advise the defendant to plead guilty without hiring an attorney.

Call your local public defender’s office.

Public defenders often have an “attorney of the day” or “duty attorney” assigned to answer questions. While you may not get advice specific to your case, the attorney will probably tell you what the standard sentence is for the crime you’re charged with.

Ask the prosecutor.

At the first court appearance (called the arraignment), ask the prosecutor, “If I plead guilty (or “nolo contendere”—in which you do not admit guilt, but do not contest the facts) today, what kind of sentence am I likely to get?” While the judge rather than the prosecutor will impose the sentence, the case may be routine enough that the prosecutor’s estimate will be pretty close to the mark. But be careful on this one. The prosecutor is not normally the person you want to get your advice from. 

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