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Traditional & Alternative Criminal Sentencing Options

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  • 0:01 Criminal Sentencing
  • 1:50 Traditional Sentences
  • 3:54 Alternative Sentences
  • 6:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Once a criminal defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty by a jury, he will be sentenced. This lesson discusses the various criminal sentencing options, including traditional and alternative sentencing options.

Criminal Sentencing

Oh no! Christopher has been through some hard times lately and made some bad choices. He stole from his employer and was just convicted of felony stealing. Now he's nervous to know what his punishment will be. Will he have to go to prison? Can he do probation? Will this be on his record forever?

Once a criminal defendant pleads guilty to a crime or is found guilty by a jury, that defendant then faces sentencing. During this phase of the criminal justice process, the convicted defendant is brought before the court so that the defendant's penalty can be ordered. The penalty, or punishment, is known as the defendant's sentence. In most cases, the sentence is ordered by the judge and will be based on the jury's verdict. Sometimes there's not a jury, and in that case, the judge decides both the verdict and the sentence.

For example, if the jury found the defendant guilty of first degree murder, then the judge will sentence the defendant according to that finding. If the jury found the defendant guilty of manslaughter, a lesser crime, then the judge will sentence the defendant in accordance with that finding. If the jury finds the defendant not guilty, then the judge will not sentence the defendant.

When deciding a sentence, the judge picks between several possible options set by law. In Texas, the possible penalty for a first degree felony ranges from five to 99 years in prison or a life sentence. So for first degree murder, the judge will pick a sentence that falls somewhere in that range.

Traditional Sentences

Judges have a fair amount of discretion, so sentences can vary widely. Of course, the type of crime has the largest influence on the sentence. The same law that sets out a particular crime usually also sets out the sentencing guidelines for that crime. This is why certain crimes, like Texas' first degree murder, have a minimum sentence of five years, while others, like petty theft, have no jail time at all.

There are several different types of sentences traditionally given to convicted defendants. Let's take a look at the most common types of sentences, starting with the harshest:

  • Capital Punishment is a sentence of death allowable for only the most serious of crimes. The death penalty is a sentencing option in 32 states. Approximately 3,000 prison inmates are currently awaiting executions.
  • Incarceration is a sentence of confinement to prison or jail. Prisons are operated by states and the federal government, while jails are operated by cities and counties. There are over two million people in our nation's prisons and jails.
  • Probation is a sentence of supervision for a set period of time. Probation is often known as community supervision. The convicted defendant is usually given a prison sentence, but then that sentence is 'suspended' during the term of probation. The defendant is overseen by a probation officer and must display good behavior during the probation period or risk having probation revoked by the judge. If probation is revoked, the defendant will be sent to serve the prison sentence. Probation is the most common type of sentence, with over four million people on probation in the U.S.

Alternative Sentences

There are also several newer sentencing options. Many of these alternative sentences were designed in a response to prison overcrowding. The options aim to shorten prison stays or avoid prison altogether for nonviolent offenders.

Alternative sentences combine newer philosophies, like treatment and rehabilitation, with traditional sentencing options. Let's take a look at a few of these innovative options:

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