Criminal Sentencing FAQ

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.

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