25 Sep 23

What sentencing options are available?

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Last Updated on: 27th September 2023, 02:35 am

What Sentencing Options Are Available?

If you or a loved one have been convicted of a crime, understanding the potential sentences is critical. Sentencing options vary widely based on the crime, jurisdiction, defendant’s background and other factors. This article provides an overview of the most common criminal sentencing options.


For many felonies and serious misdemeanors, some term of incarceration is the primary sentencing option. Key things to know:

  • Felonies carry potential prison terms of 1+ years.
  • Misdemeanors have possible jail terms up to 1 year.
  • Minimum and maximum sentences are set by statute for each crime.
  • Judges have discretion within statutory ranges.
  • Life sentences are possible for murder, rape and other serious violent crimes.

Incarceration terms can range from a few days or weeks for minor crimes up to multiple decades for the most serious offenses.


Monetary fines are a common sentence for many less serious crimes. Things to know:

  • Can be imposed alone or with other sanctions like probation.
  • Typically range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
  • Set fine amounts vary by jurisdiction and crime.
  • Judges consider defendant’s ability to pay.
  • Failure to pay can result in additional penalties.

Fines provide financial punishment and deterrence. But excessive fines are prohibited by the Constitution.


Probation allows defendants to avoid incarceration if they comply with strict court supervision. Details include:

  • Defendants remain free in the community.
  • They must adhere to conditions like drug testing, employment, no reoffending, etc.
  • Standard probation terms range from 1-5 years typically.
  • Violations may result in sanctions or revocation of probation.

Probation provides monitored freedom for defendants to demonstrate rehabilitation without serving time behind bars.


Restitution requires offenders to compensate victims for economic losses from the crime. Key facts:

  • Intended to make victims financially whole again.
  • Common in property crimes like theft, fraud and vandalism.
  • Also applies to losses like medical bills, lost income and funeral costs.
  • Ordered as condition of probation or stand-alone sanction.

Restitution aims to restore victims rather than merely punish offenders.

Community Service

Community service sentences offenders to unpaid work benefiting the public. Details include:

  • Provides labor to governments, charities and other organizations.
  • Common sanction for minor nonviolent crimes.
  • Hours required vary from 20 up to 500+ in some cases.
  • Often combined with fines or probation.
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Community service provides constructive punishment and keeps low-risk offenders out of jail.

Home Confinement

Home confinement, often called house arrest, restricts defendants to their homes except for approved necessities. Key facts:

  • Usually includes electronic monitoring like GPS ankle bracelet.
  • Allows offenders to maintain jobs, medical care, etc.
  • Often imposed pretrial, but sometimes as sentencing option.
  • Violations can result in incarceration.

Home confinement provides punishment without prison’s disruptions to life.

Diversion Programs

Diversion programs like drug court provide supervised treatment in lieu of incarceration. Details:

  • Intended for offenders with substance abuse or mental health issues.
  • Successful completion results in dismissed charges.
  • Failure leads to imposition of a traditional sentence.
  • Programs typically last 12-18 months.

Diversion focuses on rehabilitation rather than only punishment.

Deferred Sentencing

In deferred sentencing, defendants enter a guilty plea which is not formally accepted by the judge. Key facts:

  • Defendants complete a term of probation-like supervision.
  • If completed successfully, charges are dismissed.
  • Noncompliance leads to conviction and standard sentencing.
  • Allows avoidance of permanent criminal record.

Deferred sentencing incentives rehabilitation and allows record avoidance.

Fines Versus Fees

It’s important to understand the difference between fines and fees:

  • Fines are monetary penalties imposed as punishment.
  • Fees are administrative costs like court costs, probation supervision, etc.
  • Both fines and fees can be part of a criminal sentence.
  • Fees often total hundreds or thousands of dollars.
  • Unpaid amounts can negatively impact defendants.

Fines punish, while fees cover system costs, but both increase financial burden.

Sentencing Hearings

Sentences are determined at special hearings where both sides can present information for the judge to consider. Typical process:

  1. Prosecution recommends sentence, presents aggravating factors.
  2. Defense recommends sentence, presents mitigating factors.
  3. Defendant afforded chance to speak.
  4. Judge reviews advisory guidelines and imposes sentence.

Sentencing hearings allow each side to advocate for their desired punishment.

Sentencing Guidelines

Most jurisdictions have advisory sentencing guidelines judges consider when imposing sentences. Things to know:

  • Guidelines provide sentencing ranges based on the crime and defendant’s history.
  • Judges have discretion to depart from guidelines.
  • Guidelines aim for consistency but are not mandatory.
  • Federal guidelines tend to be more rigid than state ones.

Guidelines influence sentences but do not control them entirely.

Sentencing Alternatives

Creative judges sometimes use alternative sentences like:

  • Community theater instead of jail.
  • Reading books and writing reports.
  • Going back to school to earn a degree.
  • Unusual shaming penalties like special license plates or signs.

Some alternative sanctions provide accountability without standard punishments.

Talk to a Lawyer About Sentencing Options

The available sentencing options depend on the charges and unique circumstances of each case. Talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer to understand your realistic sentencing exposure and options.

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While sentencing can seem rigid, creative advocacy may help achieve the most favorable reasonable outcome.