Criminal Sentencing FAQ
What factors do judges use in determining sentences?
4. What factors do judges use in determining sentences?
If the judge has discretion to determine the sentence, the defense may bring to a judge's attention an infinite number of factual circumstances that may move the judge to impose a lighter sentence. The following are examples of such circumstances (called "mitigating" factors):
- The offender has little or no history of criminal conduct.
- The offender was an accessory to the crime (helped the main offender) but was not the main actor.
- The offender committed the crime when under great personal stress; for example, he or she had lost a job, was late on rent, and had just been in a car wreck.
- No one was hurt, and the crime was committed in a manner that was unlikely to have hurt anyone.
Just as mitigating circumstances can sway a judge to lessen a sentence, "aggravating" circumstances can compel a judge to "throw the book at" an offender. A previous record of the same type of offense is the most common aggravating factor. Other aggravating circumstances grow out of the way a crime was committed, as when an offender is particularly cruel to a victim. Sometimes, laws themselves specify aggravating factors, such as the use of a weapon.