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.