How Do Judges Determine Criminal Sentences for Specific Crimes?


Quick Answer

Judges determine sentences within guidelines from state or federal sentencing laws, and they consider any mitigating or aggravating circumstances. In most cases, judges determine criminal sentences, but there are exceptions, such as in death penalty cases, when jurors must agree to impose that penalty, notes Nolo.

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Full Answer

In states where legislatures have passed mandatory minimum sentences for specific crimes, judges do not have the discretion to impose penalties other than those dictated by that legislation, explains Nolo. Most criminal laws do not include mandatory sentencing guidelines, and those dictated by federal law act more as guidelines. Most commonly, judges consider factors such as defendants' ages and criminal histories, the circumstances of their crimes, their levels of remorse, and the allowable range of sentencing options when making their decisions.

Factors such as little to no criminal history, acting as an accomplice rather than the main offender, committing crimes under great personal stress and committing crimes that didn't involve injury are likely to act as mitigating factors during sentencing, according to Nolo. Judges may consider long criminal histories, particularly if there are convictions for the same crime, and the level of cruelty the criminal demonstrated during commission of the crime. Some criminal statutes define aggravating factors, such as use of a weapon, that lead to longer prison sentences.

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