One thing about any particular industry, field of study, business, or technology is that the area seems to have its own language. The computer world, for example, seems to have a completely foreign language involving RAM, gigabytes, memory sticks, and USB ports. And what about Twitter? Does anyone remember the times when we had a discussion without using the word “hashtag?” #Isoundlikeanoldperson. The same is true of federal criminal sentencing and what what sentencing actually means.
Anyway, jargon is just a part of the business, whatever that business might be. It is a short-hand way to communicate for those "in the know." And, in some cases, it is a way of communicating that helps people figure out who is in the know and who isn’t.
Of course, the law and the courtroom are no exceptions to the jargon culture. There are many, many terms that get used frequently in a courtroom that an average layperson would not understand. So, when it comes to sentencing meaning, let’s take a moment to learn some jargon with regard to sentences given out in criminal court, state or federal, and let’s begin with the word “sentence” itself.
Sentencing Meaning: The Meaning of the Word “Sentence”
Have you ever asked yourself why, in the criminal law, the punishment announced by the judge is called a “sentence?” The origin of the word is actually from the Latin sentire which means to “feel, or be of the opinion,” and is related to the Latin sententia which means “opinion.” Accordingly, when a judge gives a “sentence,” he or she is essentially giving an “opinion” of how the case should be resolved.
Different Kinds of Sentences
As we know from all of the procedural police television shows, the judge hands down a sentence after the jury renders its verdict. The sentence is usually for a term of years or could be life imprisonment. But, that does not quite get to how specific sentences can, and need, to be. There are actually many more details about the way in which sentences are imposed. Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the specific types of sentences a criminal court may impose:
- Concurrent sentence. If a person receives two sentences for two separate crimes, a concurrent sentence means that the person will serve both sentences at the same time, i.e., the time served counts towards both sentences.
- Consecutive sentence. In contrast to concurrent sentences, a person given consecutive sentences means that the person must serve each sentence, one after the other.
- Deferred sentence. A sentence that is deferred means that execution of the sentence is postponed until some time in the future. It is similar to a “suspended” sentence.
- Determinate sentence. A determinate sentence, also called a “fixed,” “straight,” or “flat” sentence, is a sentence for a fixed period of time.
- Indeterminate sentence. In contrast to a determinate sentence, an indeterminate sentence is one in which the court will sentence someone to “not more than” or “not less than” a certain number of years. Thus, while some parameter (e.g., not more than four years) is provided, it is up to the corrections department and/or probation to determine precisely how long a person will serve his or her sentence.
- Life sentence. A life sentence means that the convicted person must spend the rest of his or her life in prison, though in some states this can equate to a specific number of years.
- Mandatory sentence. A mandatory sentence is a sentence that is dictated by statute (or other law), giving the sentencing judge no discretion on the sentence imposed.
- Presumptive sentence. A presumptive sentence is essentially a recommended sentence that is written into a statute (or other law) that serves as a guideline for the judge. However, the judge still has discretion to give a sentence above or below the presumptive sentence based on a number of case-specific factors.
- Parole Ineligibility. One important factor with prison sentences has to do with eligibility for parole. Judges often, either in their own discretion or by statute, impose a period of time during which a convicted person is not eligible to be released on parole. So, quite often a sentence imposed on a person will stipulate to that time period of parole ineligibility. It should be noted that there is no parole at the federal level.
Alternatives to Sentencing
Let us not forget that criminal sentences do not only mean imprisonment. Rather, there is a host of non-custodial alternatives that criminal courts use to sentence offenders. Here is a short list of some of the ways to punish offenders without resorting to incarceration:
- Monetary fines.
- Restitution, in which the offender essentially reimburses a victim for the value of what was lost in the crime.
- Probation, which allows someone back into the community but with restrictions such as mandatory drug testing, or reporting to a probation officer.
- Electronic monitoring, in which a person wears an ankle monitor that shows his or her whereabouts, ensuring that a person does not leave the jurisdiction.
- Court-ordered community service.
- Pre-trial diversion programs, which often allow first-time offenders to avoid prosecution, conviction, and a criminal record if the offender agrees to follow certain probation-like conditions for a period of time.
Given the fact that our nation is beginning to realize that the mass incarceration experiment in the United States has been a failure, courts and legislatures are increasingly looking to sentencing alternatives to limit the prison population. For most low-level, non-violent crime, sentencing alternatives make a lot of sense for saving criminal justice system resources, for the jobs and lives of those who were convicted of a crime, and for the long-term benefit of the general public.
If you are looking for an experienced sentencing lawyer, then look no further than Brandon Sample, Esq. Brandon Sample has the passion, the skill, and the experience to tackle any sentencing issue in your federal case. Call today for a free case review at 802-444-HELP.
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