Both state and federal judges use sentencing guidelines to help determine the length of incarceration and the amount of fines to impose on convicted offenders. However, judicial discretion also comes into play and specific laws can also alter the guidelines used to determine sentences.
The sentencing guidelines available to judges provide minimum and maximum penalty ranges but they encourage judges to consider many factors in final sentences that can conceivably fall below the minimums or extend beyond the maximums in certain situations. To illustrate the complexity of these decisions, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual contains 569 pages of information that judges should consider when making these decisions, such as:
- The offense level of the conviction
- The criminal history of the offender, which can potentially justify sentencing beyond the maximum
- Whether prison sentences can include parole and, if so, how much time must be served before qualifying for a parole hearing
- Whether the level of conviction justifies probation or any form of supervised release in place of incarceration and, if so, the detailed conditions of release
Anyone charged with a felony or high-level misdemeanor needs a defense that extends well beyond the circumstances of the crime. In fact, an experienced criminal defense attorney spends significant time learning about the history of a client to identify all factors that can improve the outcome of a case. Anything from a clean criminal record to a medical condition that affects decision-making ability can be the mitigating factor that leads to reduced or suspended sentences in a plea bargain process or, in certain cases, to some or all charges being dropped.