Crime and Punishment

Crimes are punished according to their seriousness, with higher penalties for more serious crimes.

Punishment

Punishment may include:

  • A fine
  • Term of imprisonment and/or parole
  • Deferred sentencing or probation
  • Restitution (repayment) to victims
  • The death penalty

Depending on the state, the sentencing judge may also have the power to give unusual punishments, such as various kinds of community service.

Penalties for crimes vary greatly from state to state and reflect policy decisions made by courts and legislatures. For example, a state with a significant ranching industry may punish cattle theft very seriously, reflecting the importance of the business of cattle production in that state, while another state may punish it less severely because it is not of great concern in that state.

In deciding an appropriate sentence, a judge may take into account your:

  • Prior criminal record
  • Age
  • Other circumstances surrounding the crime, including your cooperation with law enforcement authorities.

Sentencing Guidelines

In the federal criminal justice system, courts follow the United States Sentencing Guidelines ("USSG"). The United States Sentencing Commission, a federal agency, publishes these guidelines.

While federal statutes usually set maximum and minimum punishments, the USSG sets out factors courts must consider in determining the exact sentence within those maximums and minimums.

Under the USSG, persons convicted of crimes are assigned "points" for certain factors, including:

  • The amount of loss to victims.
  • Whether a weapon was used in the crime.
  • The age or vulnerability of the victims of the crime.

The guidelines also consider a person's prior criminal history, with repeat offenders receiving more "points" in the guidelines — and thus more severe sentences.

The guidelines have significantly limited the discretion of federal judges to sentence, and the ability of federal prosecutors to engage in plea-bargaining. A few states have adopted sentencing provisions similar to the federal sentencing guidelines.

Plea bargaining is frequently criticized, but the vast majority of criminal cases are disposed of by plea bargains. A plea bargain is the result of an agreement between the prosecutor and the accused person, with the accused person agreeing to plead guilty to a crime, or crimes, in return for a negotiated sentence. A plea bargain can occur before a trial or even during a trial.

In state criminal justice systems, plea bargains are usually extremely flexible and may result in:

  • The complete dismissal of all charges.
  • A reduction of sentence from a lengthy term of imprisonment to a small fine.
  • An agreement to accept life imprisonment in order to avoid a death penalty prosecution.

In the federal criminal justice system, the United States Sentencing Guidelines significantly limit the ability of prosecutors to enter into plea bargains.

Deferred Sentencing varies from state to state. In Texas, depending on the crime you may be eligible for Deferred Adjudication. This type of community supervision allows the Judge, upon a plea of guilty or no contest, to suspend a finding of guilt until all conditions of supervision are met. Upon completion the Judge will dismiss and discharge the case; there is no final conviction.

Probation is the suspension of jail time, if you meet certain conditions. A judge may place you on probation where jail time isn't required by law. Conditions of probation ensure that you lead a law-abiding life.

At the end of the probationary period, you're free of the state's supervision. Violating probation terms can result in the court revoking your probation and sending you to jail to serve your original jail sentence.

Parole is the conditional release of a prisoner before the expiration of the sentence. Parole is usually granted by a separate state agency, or commission, which considers the applications of prisoners for early release from imprisonment.

Typically, parole is granted on certain conditions that must be carefully followed. Violating these conditions can result in the agency revoking your parole and sending you back to prison to finish your sentence.

Sex offender registration laws have been enacted in many states. These statutes require convicted sex offenders to register with local police departments so that various individuals and groups within their communities can be warned of their presence in the community. Typically, convicted sex offenders are classified according to a judgment about the likelihood that they will reoffend and the seriousness of their prior conduct. The classification into which the particular offender falls determines which members of the community receive notice of their presence. So far, these statutes have largely survived court challenges based on arguments that they violate the constitutional rights of the offenders. The specific provisions of such statutes vary from state to state.