Concurrent Sentence in Law: Definition & Example

Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

A concurrent sentence is a form of sentencing imposed on a criminal defendant who has been convicted of two or more crimes. In this lesson you will learn about sentencing, the difference between concurrent and consecutive sentences, and how concurrent sentences work.

Sentencing in Criminal Justice

The criminal justice system in the United States is designed to serve three basic functions of law enforcement: the investigation of crimes, the prosecution of those accused of committing crimes, and the punishment of those convicted of committing crimes. Sentencing relates to the punishment element of the justice system.

A sentence is the formal punishment imposed on an individual convicted of committing a crime (this individual is often referred to as the 'defendant'). In most criminal trials, a sentence is determined by a jury. Think of the typical criminal trial as a two-phase process: first, the jury hears the evidence and then determines whether the defendant is guilty; and second, the jury decides what punishment best 'fits' the crime after considering the evidence and hearing some instructions from the judge. These instructions (aptly called 'jury instructions') tell the jury what sentences are approved by law for the charged crimes. The final stage in the process is sometimes referred to as the sentencing phase or the penalty phase.

Once the jury settles on a punishment, it makes its recommendation to the judge. It is actually the judge (not the jury) who formally sentences the defendant. A sentence could be the imposition of a fine or the requirement that the defendant serve a term of days, weeks, or years in a correctional facility, like a prison. Those convicted of serious crimes, like robbery or murder, often receive harsher sentences than those convicted of nonviolent crimes.

Concurrent Sentence vs. Consecutive Sentence

When the defendant has been convicted of committing of multiple crimes, he will receive multiple sentences. In that scenario, the jury must determine how the defendant should serve out his sentences. In other words, the jury must decide whether the sentences should run consecutively or concurrently.

A concurrent sentence is a term of imprisonment equal to the length of the longest sentence. This method of sentencing only applies when a defendant has been sentenced for two or more crimes. The purpose of a concurrent sentence is to allow the defendant to serve all of his sentences at the same time. So, if a defendant has been sentenced to five years in prison for burglary, and also ten years in prison for aggravated assault, his total concurrent sentence would equal ten years in prison.

The opposite of a concurrent sentence is a consecutive sentence. As the name implies, a consecutive sentence requires a defendant to serve two or more sentences back to back. Therefore, in the above example, the defendant's total sentence, if served consecutively, would be fifteen years. A concurrent sentence will be more favorable for a defendant who has been convicted of multiple crimes, because the total length of the sentence will be shorter than it would be if the sentences ran consecutively.

There are many reasons why a judge may impose a concurrent sentence. The judge may feel compassion for the defendant and believe that he deserves some leniency. When a defendant's convictions are all connected, the judge may impose a concurrent sentence rather than a consecutive one. For example, if the defendant robbed a convenience store, he may be convicted of robbery 'and' burglary, in which case a judge may find a concurrent sentence appropriate for the 'continuing course of conduct'. Whatever the reason, it is the judge who ultimately decides if the defendant should serve his sentences concurrently or consecutively.

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