Criminal Court Process: Felony SentencingAfter a jury finds a defendant guilty of a crime, it is the judge who decides what punishment would be most appropriate for that crime, given the circumstances. For example, a judge may recommend life in prison or the death sentence in a capital murder case. There are laws in place that govern sentencing in both the federal and state courts. Some laws are broad, however, so the judge relies upon “aggravating” and “mitigating” factors to help him or her come to a decision regarding a sentence for an individual deemed guilty. Before a judge imposes a sentence, he or she typically will consider remarks made regarding the defendant by the criminal defense lawyer defending him or her. The defendant typically also will make a statement on his or her behalf to the judge before his or her punishment is announced. In some cases, a victim or the survivors of a victim are given the opportunity to address the judge concerning the punishment they would like to see handed out to the defendant, based on how their lives were altered by the defendant’s choices.

What do “Mitigating” and “Aggravating” Factors Mean?
When considering the best punishment for an individual who has gone through the criminal court process and has been convicted of a felony, a judge will consider various factors. A component of the case may be viewed as a “mitigating” factor, which means it could lessen a criminal punishment. While an “aggravating” factor is something that could increase a criminal punishment, depending on the circumstances surrounding the case. For example, if the criminal defendant has a lengthy criminal record already, this could be viewed as an “aggravating” factor. This fact may lead the judge to impose a stricter sentencing due to the individual’s history of law breaking behavior.

Some Factors Considered by a Judge
The following are several of the main factors a judge will take into consideration when handing out a sentence in court:

  • Whether or not the offender is a repeat offender or if he or she has never been in trouble with the law before.
  • Whether or not the offender assisted a main offender in the crime or crimes committed.
  • Whether or not the crime was committed by the offender during a time of duress for him or her.
  • Whether or not the defendant’s actions caused another person any harm or could have caused another person to get hurt.
  • Whether or not the offender was cruel or/or vindictive to a victim.
  • Whether or not the offender seems to be truly remorseful for what he or she has done.

Non-Factors for Sentencing
While a judge in California or any other state can rely upon certain “aggravating” and “mitigating” factors to help him or her reach a decision regarding a defendant’s sentence, there also are factors a judge does not take into account when concluding on a punishment.
A judge may not consider the following circumstances:

  • The fact that the defendant choose to go to trial;
  • If he or she thinks the defendant may be dangerous individuals; and
  • A defendant’s status as a foreigner.