Sentencing laws vary from state to state and between the states and the federal system. Judges are given guidelines when imposing sentences. Most states have a range of potential sentences for a crime and the judge selects a sentence based on a combination of the crime charged, aggravating and mitigating circumstances, defendant's prior criminal history, and other enhancements.
Judges usually have a variety of options available, including jail and prison alternatives. They include probation (formal or informal), house arrest (electronic monitoring, tether, etc), work furlough programs, intermittent sentences (serving weekends"), fines, restitution, diversion and community service orders. Many of them can be combined.
Electronic Monitoring/ House Arrest:
Electronic devices can be used to monitor activities of defendants released pending trial as well as to supervise those on probation or parole. Usually a bracelet or a leg band that the client cannot remove is used. House arrests describe cases in which the defendant is released but is ordered to stay at home, or some location, and wear an electronic monitoring device. Probation officers or parole officers can call at unpredictable times to maintain surveillance over the defendant's activities.
Work furlough programs permit an inmate to maintain a job outside the jail facility. Typically, the inmate goes to work on his/her normal schedule but spends the remaining hours in jail. Usually only defendants who are not considered escape risks are placed on this type of program. Defendants convicted of dealing drugs are usually not allowed on work furlough because of the potential risk they pose.
When defendants are given intermittent sentences, they are allowed to serve their sentence a few days at a time. Intermittent sentences are frequently referred to as "serving weekends" because the defendant typically works at a job from Monday through Friday and spends the weekend in jail.
Diversion is the process of sending cases to sources outside the court system. These cases typically involve first offenders with misdemeanor or felony charges when there appears to be a high potential for rehabilitation through counseling. Attending counseling sessions is mandatory. Defendants are screened prior to entering the program and the probation department must verify eligibility. Some programs divert the defendant before the charges are filed. The prosecutor will keep the complaint so it can be filed if the offender does not satisfactorily complete the program. If the defendant successfully completes the program, then he/she will have no record because the case was never filed in court. It is more typical to file the criminal charges and then have the defendant agree to diversion. Charges are dismissed against defendants who satisfactorily complete the program.
The following penalties can be combined with other sentencing options:
In most cases, the judge has the authority to fine a defendant who is convicted. A fine can be combined with other sentencing options or be the sole punishment. It is common to have standard fines but the judge usually has the discretion to impose fines based on the circumstances, including the income of the defendant.
Restitution is different from a fine. Fines go to the government but restitution money goes to the victim. The amount of the restitution is based in the victim's financial losses. State laws regulate what types of losses are covered. Typically, they include medical bills, lost wages and damage to property. The amount must be established at the sentencing hearing.
Community Service Orders:
Some states permit the sentencing judge to make a community service order that requires the defendant to perform volunteer work for the benefit of the community or in lieu of paying fines.
There are many sentencing options available other than jail. When a defendant receives a jail sentence, he or she can hire an attorney to attempt to modify the sentence. In a sentence modification, the attorney evaluates the case to determine which alternative sentence can be pursued. The attorney tries to present mitigating circumstances to the court to try and negotiate a more lenient sentence with the District Attorney or the Judge.
Examples of mitigating circumstances are:
1st time offense
Good standing in community
Defendant has taken steps towards rehabilitation
Deteriorating health condition
Cooperating witness with law enforcement
Sentence modifications also depend on the nature of the case such as, non-violent cases. Pleas for sentence modifications are ideally preferable during the sentencing stage of the case. After sentencing, it becomes more difficult. Some alternatives to jail in a sentence modification would be house arrest, work furlough and rehabilitation facility.