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What Factors Influence Felony Sentencing?

The length of time that a person spends incarcerated depends on the crime committed.
The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that minors cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a felony conviction.
Although controversial, many people receive reduced sentences for testifying against people who have committed other crimes.
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  • Written By: Felicia Dye
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 19 September 2014
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Felonies are a category of serious crimes. Convictions of these crimes commonly result in the sentencing of some period of incarceration. However, the length of that incarceration can vary depending upon which crime is committed, where it is committed, and how old the criminal is.

One of the primary factors affecting felony sentencing is the type of crime that was committed. Although several offenses may be considered felonies, each may result in orders for different lengths of incarceration because all felonies are not treated equally. In most jurisdictions, felonies are divided into categories of severity, such as class 1 felony or a class A felony. Crimes in the more severe categories generally result in longer sentences.

The jurisdiction under which a crime is tried is another major factor influencing felony sentencing. Generally, states have the authority to write their own laws and to prescribe sentences for actions that offend those laws. Since laws can vary from one state to another, the punishments people receive for crimes will vary depending on where they are. Furthermore, some crimes are prosecuted in federal courts. These courts also have the ability to prescribe sentences, which may differ from those issued by state courts.

The number of offenses a person commits can affect his felony sentencing. People who have multiple prior convictions commonly receive longer sentences than first time offenders. California, for example, gained notoriety for its “three strikes” law which required life sentences for those convicted of a third felony.

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Cooperation affects felony sentencing. Although the practice is controversial, many people receive reduced sentences for working as informants for law enforcement officials or for testifying against people who are considered bigger criminals. Some argue that one of the biggest problems with this arrangement is that it encourages criminals to lie and to continue to engage in crime.

Age can play a role in felony sentencing. Although an adult and a minor may commit the same crime, in many cases, the adult will receive a harsher sentence. In 2010, the United States Supreme Court ruled that giving minors a sentence of life without parole violated the portion of the Constitution that forbids cruel and unusual punishment if those minors have not been convicted of murder. Therefore, a serial rapist who is a minor must be given an opportunity for release, while an adult is not required to have such an opportunity.

The harm and the risk of harm a criminal imposes on innocent individuals can affect felony sentencing. For example, if a person burglarizes a home while it is empty, he may receive a lighter sentence than he would if he commits the same crime while the family is asleep inside. Crimes committed in vicinity of children or in which children are victims also tend to result in harsher sentences.

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