Which Factors Affect Legal Sentencing?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 February 2020
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Legal sentencing refers to the process of assigning penalties to a person convicted of a crime. Judges and juries may have a wealth of sentencing options available to them, though some systems require the courts to work within a schedule of penalties for certain crimes. There are many different factors that can affect legal sentencing, including the type of crime, the criminal history of the convict, the circumstance of the crime, and the rules of the legal system.

One major factor that can affect legal sentencing is whether the case at hand is a civil or criminal case. Civil cases are disputes between citizens, and generally can only result in fines or remunerative damages paid by one party to another. Criminal cases, in contrast, refer to crimes against the state, and can permit a far wider range of penalties, from community service to capital punishment. Civil and criminal cases are sometimes held in completely different court systems to help streamline the justice process for each type of lawsuit.


Within the realm of criminal justice, the type and severity of the crime can have a strong influence on sentencing. Some systems divide crimes into misdemeanors and felonies, with felony crimes usually bringing far more serious penalties. Even within those categories, the severity of the crime may be ranked by degrees, with a first degree murder conviction likely to bring a heavier sentence than a second degree murder conviction. The higher ranked the crime is on a justice system's scale, the higher the chance of severe punishments such as life in prison without parole, or even execution.

Some justice systems allow lenience for people with no criminal record. This is sometimes done out of the hope that the crime was an isolated incident in an otherwise lawful life, and that the convicted person may be sufficiently chastened by the mere experience. Lighter sentencing guidelines for first-time, non-violent offenders may include measures such as fines, and court-ordered community service. In the case of conviction for misdemeanor drug possession, a first-time offender may also be offered diversionary programs, such as rehabilitation, instead of prison.

While many legal systems give judges some room for sentencing, the potential for judicial misconduct may increase with total sentencing freedom. Some legal systems create sentencing schedules, which set minimum and maximum penalties for certain crimes. Sentencing schedules allow judges to work within the prescribed range of penalties, basing their decisions on the circumstances of the crime, the history of the defendant, and any other pertinent factors. Scheduling is somewhat controversial; some legal scholars suggest that the penalty range is open to bias from legislators, and that it limits a judge's ability to do his or her job.


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