Sentence Law and Legal Definition

A sentence is the punishment given by a judge or jury to a person convicted of a crime. A sentence is required to be within the guidelines set by state law for state crimes or federal law in convictions for a federal crime. A sentence includes all fines, community service, restitution or other punishment, or terms of probation. Sentencing varies by state and the facts of each case and offender history.

Misdemeanor sentences are usually no longer than one year in county jail, but for felonies the sentence can range from a year to the death penalty. Sometimes the defendant may receive a "suspended sentence," which means the punishment is not imposed if the defendant does not get into other trouble for the period he/she would have spent in jail or prison. "Concurrent sentences," are often ordered when a person is convicted of more than one crime and the sentences for each crime are served at the same time and only last as long as the longest term. When sentences are imposed for more than one crime and they are served one after the other, it is a "consecutive sentence". Another type of sentence is an "indeterminate" sentences, in which the actual release date is not set and will be based on review of prison conduct.

There is much debate over proper sentencing procedures. Some of the issues debated include fair sentencing that is not biased by geography, race, or judicial assignment, preventing prison overcrowding and the premature release of prisoners, and providing judges with flexibility in sentencing options. Sentencing commissions exist to study data and report on trends such as racial disparities in sentencing, recidivism rates, and others.