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A cumulative sentence is the sum total of what a person must serve for their crimes. The sentence is announced after a court, either by jury or judge, has found a defendant guilty of a crime or crimes. A cumulative sentence usually refers to a specific period of time of incarceration, but could also refer to a total amount of fines and penalties that the court assesses. Despite the pronouncement of a certain number of years, the actual time served could still be less than that, with work credits, good behavior credits, and other considerations.
The most common time a cumulative sentence is served is when multiple crimes have been committed. These crimes do not necessarily have to occur at the same time or during the same incident, but often do. For example, if a person breaks into a home and attempts to harm an occupant, that person may be charged with both burglary and assault. Even though these crimes occurred during the same incident, they are separate violations of the law and each has its own sentence.
In order for something to be a cumulative sentence, the service of the separate sentences must run consecutively. That means the convicted individual must completely serve one sentence before getting credit to serve the other sentence. In the example mentioned, if the accused was given five years in prison for the burglary and two years for the assault, he would have to completely serve one before starting the other, for a total of seven years. If the judge so rules, it could instead be a concurrent sentence; both could be served at the same time, which would result in a maximum of five years.
A cumulative sentence served consecutively often means a defendant will stay incarcerated for a longer period of time. Even if the convicted person in the example provided receives parole for the assault sentence, the other sentence would still be enforced. Therefore, the consecutive sentence is often a tool a judge will use for especially heinous crimes, or for individuals he or she feels are a threat to society.
In some cases, a court may impose a cumulative sentence even if a convicted person committed no other crimes during the incident, but was on probation for other crimes. Typically, another conviction will violate terms of the parole or probation, and send the individual back to jail or prison. A judge may decide that the individual will finish serving the original sentence before starting to serve the sentence on the most recent crime. Thus, even though the accused committed only one crime in the recent past, the sentence is still cumulative.