In Law, what is a Sentence?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 10 December 2019
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The legal sentence is a decision made, usually by a judge, that determines punishment for the crime a person has been judged guilty of committing. This term is unlike the grammatical sentence and can be used as both noun and verb; a criminal can be sentenced, for example. There are many different types of sentences that can be handed down by a judge or the person making the decision of what to do when someone is declared guilty. Additionally, the law sometimes very strictly governs sentencing or judges may have ability to choose from a range of punishments, making sentences more or less severe.

There are several basic types of legal sentences. Sometimes the only thing a person who has a broken a law must do is pay a fine, and this is usually reserved for relatively minor crimes. Alternately, a crime committed could result in things like parole, mandatory community service, house arrest, or a combination of several of these things. More severe crimes typically require serving time in jail. The most heinous acts could, instead, come with a sentence of death, depending on region.


Punishment usually is directly tied to a type of crime, but in certain areas, punishment far exceeds criminal behavior. Human rights activists work tirelessly to appeal to governments that demand very harsh sentences for women who have been judged guilty of certain things like having had affairs or failing to obey husbands. In some countries, such behavior meets with the sternest punishment, such as being stoned to death or being subject to extreme corporal punishment. Even in countries with modern legal systems, there are those who argue against certain sentences like the death penalty.

How sentences are determined depends, as mentioned, on the crime committed. Regional laws may either make these definitions very rigid or give judges discretionary power to determine within a certain framework what punishment is appropriate. A charge of manslaughter might require a specific number of years in jail as a sentence, or it could have minimum and maximum suggested amounts.

Based on individual cases, judges could decide if a minimum or maximum amount was appropriate. Similarly homicide cases might give the judge discretion to decide between a punishment of death or life in prison without parole. Some sentences are open-ended and people may only be released from prison or hospitals for the insane if they meet certain conditions. These are called indeterminate and some people never meet conditions that justify release.

While a sentence is meant to deal with the final dispensation of the criminal, there may be ways to legally readdress original sentence. A convicted person might be able to appeal an original case in court and if a different verdict is rendered, he or she might have a new sentence that is more favorable or be judged not guilty. Alternately, evidence could surface, changing the way an initial case was perceived, and this could result in changes to someone’s sentence, often reducing it.



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