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What is a Sentencing Hearing?

By Christy Bieber
Updated May 17, 2024
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A sentencing hearing is a special trial following a formal criminal trial. At a sentencing hearing, a judge or jury determines the appropriate sentence for a person who has been found guilty of a crime. The sentencing may occur at the end of the regular trial or in a separate legal proceeding.

When a person is found guilty of a crime, the jury rules only on his guilt or innocence. While certain crimes carry standard penalties — for example, capital murder or murder in the first degree can carry the death penalty in some states — there is more leeway in sentencing in other situations. A sentencing hearing can be conducted to determine a person's final sentence in situations where the crime itself does not dictate an exact penalty.

A number of factors are normally considered at a sentencing hearing. For example, a defendant can present character witnesses or evidence of mitigating circumstances. Mitigating circumstances are those that make a crime seem more understandable or less egregious and that suggest a less harsh penalty may be in order. A history of being an abused child or an understandable reason for committing the crime, such as hunger or desperation, can be considered mitigating circumstances.

Exacerbating factors can also be presented at the sentencing hearing. For example, if the defendant is a repeat offender or if the crime was particularly egregious, this evidence may be presented at the sentencing trial. While evidence of past crimes is generally not permitted in a criminal trial in which guilt or innocence is determined, it is permitted during the sentencing or penalty phase of the trial, because a defendant who has committed crimes before often deserves a harsher sentence in the eyes of the law.

Victims can also speak at a sentencing hearing. They can ask the judge to administer harsher penalties and can tell their stories again for the judge. Their statements, along with all the other evidence presented, can play a role in whatever sentence the judge determines is appropriate.

In many jurisdictions within the United States, the Model Penal Code has been adopted to provide sentencing guidelines. These guidelines can indicate what types of circumstances necessitate more or less severe penalties within the range of penalties accepted by law. States that have adopted the code give less leeway to judges in determining appropriate sentences for criminals. In addition, three strikes laws, which stipulate harsh minimum penalties for third-time repeat offenders, can also dictate the results of a sentencing hearing for some defendants.

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Discussion Comments
By Esther11 — On Sep 19, 2011

There are a lot of circumstances that have to be considered at a sentencing hearing. All parties must be exhausted after the long and emotional trial. Then to have more emotional testimony and circumstances of the crime talked about, must put everyone on edge.

The victim or victims may retell their story. Evidence may be reintroduced. The defendant can have witnesses tell about his good side. Yet the fact that he has committed past crimes will be brought up.

Then all concerned must nervously wait for the judge to make his decision and put the final sentence on the criminal. It must be awful.

By PinkLady4 — On Sep 19, 2011

I think that the Modern Penal Code that some of the legal jurisdictions are using now makes a lot of sense. I hope all jurisdictions eventually start using them. It's a good idea to have some common measures to follow even when there are unusual circumstances to be considered in a sentencing decision.

Some crimes and their sentences are specified in the criminal codes. But, like the article says, some serious crimes are committed because of unfortunate things that happened to the criminal. So at the sentencing hearing, the judge may have quite a bit of leeway in giving the sentence.

The Model Penal Code gives the judge some ideas that will keep his decision from being too lax. These guidelines should keep the decision fair and reasonable for criminal and victim.

By StarJo — On Sep 18, 2011

A teacher at my school was convicted of multiple rapes. After one student came forward with her story, several others emerged.

While the jury did hear each of their stories during the trial, what was said at the sentencing hearing was different. At the trial, the witnesses were encouraged to be more matter-of-fact and focus on what happened. At the hearing, they each were allowed to speak about how the rapes had affected their lives.

It was a very emotional experience to sit and hear these girls tell about their mental scars through tears. This man had affected many lives forever. He got a pretty harsh sentence after that hearing.

By seag47 — On Sep 17, 2011

My aunt had physically and mentally abused her son for years. When he was fourteen, he snapped and stabbed her while she was slapping him around the room and yelling at her.

He didn’t kill her, and he called for an ambulance as soon as he realized what he had done. She lost a lot of blood, but she recovered with only a small scar left behind. It was nothing compared to my cousin’s scars.

He was found guilty, and he didn’t deny what he had done. However, at his sentencing hearing, he told his story of having endured years of abuse from his mother. I believe he received a lighter sentence because of it.

By wavy58 — On Sep 16, 2011

It’s amazing to me that our legal system gives several types of offenders three chances before giving them really harsh sentences. I would think that if they do the crime a second time, that would show that they have a problem they cannot control.

I knew a guy who went to jail for six months for possessing meth with the intent to sell it. Seven months after his release, he was arrested for probation violation. He got several more months for having an open container of alcohol in his vehicle.

He got released once more. This time, he stayed clean for over a year. Then, he got arrested for selling pot.

Though each strike involved different substances, it was obvious to the judge that he had issues. While in prison the second time, he had undergone months of rehabilitation. It didn’t cure him, though. On his third strike, he got a sentence of ten years.

By kylee07drg — On Sep 16, 2011

My brother’s girlfriend had a problem with stealing. He didn’t find this out until she told him she had to go to court one day. He was devastated, but he still supported her.

She told him that she had slowly stolen over $1,000 from work. They had found out about it and fired her, promising to take her to court.

At her sentencing hearing, her past crimes, which my brother had no knowledge of, were brought up. He was there in the court room to hear it all. This wasn’t the first time she had stolen money. So, she received a longer sentence than a first-time offender would have.

By sunshine31 — On Sep 15, 2011

@Oasis11 - I also wonder in states in which there are minimum sentences that are mandatory how does this affect the sentencing hearing procedures. If the defendant is already found guilty of a crime that has mandatory sentencing guidelines then isn’t this criminal sentencing a done deal?

I guess in cases like this it is really a legal formality because I believe that when there is a mandatory sentencing guideline the judge does not have much choice in the matter.

By oasis11 — On Sep 14, 2011

I think that the victim’s impact statement at a criminal sentencing hearing is really the most effective. I think when a judge hears how a particular crime has affected the victim’s life it is really hard to argue against it.

This is especially true if the victim was a child or if a murder had occurred. I can think of numerous DUI cases in which the impact statement of the family that was victimized must have been devastating to the defendant.

I know that the defendant does get to have character witnesses to speak on their behalf, but I think that the victim will have more influence in the law hearing.

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