Richard F. Gibbons, Jr., PLC
Punishment of Crime - An Overview
Punishment of Crime - An Overview

Punishment is imposed following a defendant's conviction for any crime. Such punishment is usually imposed by the judge in the trial court, although in certain cases in some jurisdictions the amount of punishment is recommended by or actually set by a jury. In all cases, the amount of punishment that may be imposed is limited by the sentencing statute associated with the crime for which the defendant has been convicted. Some punishments are set by statute without allowing any discretion to the sentencing judge while other sentencing statutes give the judge a wide range of possibilities in crafting a punishment that fits the crime and the defendant.

What constitutes a particular crime and what sentences may be imposed following a conviction for that crime are set by statutes enacted by the federal or state legislature or by some other local legislative body. Crimes are usually categorized as petty offenses, misdemeanors, and felonies. Petty offenses are minor crimes for which the maximum penalty that may be imposed following conviction is a fine. The minimum and maximum amount of the fine that may be imposed for a specific petty offense is set by statute. Misdemeanors are crimes generally considered more serious than petty offenses but less serious than felonies. Incarceration is usually available as a punishment following conviction for a misdemeanor, but the term of that incarceration is usually limited, such as to a term not to exceed one year. Usually, the place of incarceration following a conviction for a misdemeanor is not a facility that also houses persons convicted of felonies. Felonies are those crimes considered by society to be the most serious. Punishments for felonies range from fines to incarceration in a penitentiary. Capital punishment (execution) is used in some jurisdictions as a punishment for crimes such as murder or treason.

Following a conviction for a felony and more serious misdemeanors, a pre-sentence investigation is prepared to aid the judge in the sentencing process. That investigation may include a recitation of the defendant's criminal history, family relationships, employment and health history, and statements submitted by the defendant and any victim of the crime. In some jurisdictions, sentencing recommendations are submitted by the agency preparing the report. When the report is prepared by the local probation department, the recommendation generally includes the agency's opinion as to whether the defendant is a good candidate for probation.

Probation is a sentence that may be imposed by the court following a conviction for most crimes. In most jurisdictions, probation is considered to be an alternative to incarceration. When one is sentenced to a term of probation, rules of conduct are imposed by the court. The first rule of any sentence of probation is that the defendant may not violate any law of any jurisdiction. Defendants placed on probation are often ordered to pay a fine. Other rules may include making regular reports to the court or probation agency, maintaining gainful employment, supporting one's spouse and children, participating in drug treatment programs, and making restitution to the victim of the defendant's criminal conduct. In some cases, one placed on probation may not leave the state without the court's permission and may not change jobs or residence without notifying the court.

Another tool available to sentencing judges is court supervision. Court supervision differs from probation in that if one successfully completes the terms of court supervision, no conviction will appear on the defendant's record. This distinction makes court supervision appealing to individuals who may wish to seek government employment or jobs in certain industries such as banking, accounting, or law where a prior conviction may disqualify a potential employee.

Following the rules set out by the court is imperative when a defendant receives a sentence of probation or court supervision. In the event that the defendant fails to comply, the prosecution may file a petition asking the court to revoke the sentence of probation or supervision. In such a petition, the prosecutor sets out how the defendant is in violation of the rules or probation or supervision. If that conduct is admitted by the defendant or proven by the prosecutor, the court may revoke the previously imposed sentence of probation or court supervision. The court may then re-sentence the defendant to any alternative that could have been imposed in the original sentencing hearing. In other words, if a sentence of probation is revoked because of the defendant's conduct, the court can sentence the defendant to jail.

Work release is a form of incarceration that is used in many jurisdictions. Work release, or periodic imprisonment as it is called in some places, is a sentence to incarceration. The distinction of work release is that the defendant is released daily to maintain his or her employment. That time the defendant is not working is spent incarcerated. Strict rules are enforced by the housing authority, usually the county jail. Those rules include abstinence from drug or alcohol use and the prompt return at the end of the work day. With work release, weekends and vacations are generally spent incarcerated.

Impact incarceration is an option that is available to judges in certain jurisdictions, depending on the nature of the crime and the age and criminal history of the defendant. Impact incarceration is a period of imprisonment imposed immediately upon conviction. Impact incarceration may be used by the judge to impress upon younger first time offenders that the commission of serious crimes will result in prison sentences. After a relatively short period of time, defendants sentenced to impact incarceration are released from prison to serve a sentence of probation.

Copyright 2007 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

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