Sentencing in Criminal Cases

Sentencing in Colorado Courts

The most important phase of a criminal case following a plea or finding of guilt, is sentencing. Here, judges give the final word on what they feel is an appropriate punishment for the crime. Regrettably, they are very influenced by the testimony of a "victim," a victim's family members, probation officers and district attorneys. As long as the court is limited by the terms of a plea agreement with the district attorney, the outcome of a sentencing hearing is largely predictable. With open sentencing following a jury's guilty verdict at trial, however, men and women must be prepared for a worse case scenario where they are given the maximum sentence.

Considerations Judges Face at Sentencing and How They Limit Their Risk

District Court and County Court judges in Denver and Adams County face a difficult responsibility in sentencing men and women who plead guilty or are found guilty of criminal offenses. On the one hand, they want to please the public who might vote in a later retention vote of the judge, and on the other hand they don't want to over sentence people and fill up our jails and prisons. Publicity for being too harsh on crime or too easy in a case could also disrupt a judge's plans to stay on the bench. As a result, judges engage in what many government employees do in our criminal justice system: they solicit the opinions of other workers in their field and try to stay close to those recommendations in the sentence they impose. It is always a safe practice for a judge to rely on the recommendations of others.

The Role of Probation Officers at Sentencing: the PSI

Prior to the sentencing hearing in most criminal cases, a judge will request that the probation department in Arapahoe and Douglas County prepare a presentence investigation or a presentence report. This is a document given to the judge prior to sentencing where a probation officer investigates the defendant and the facts of the case, and provides recommendations on sentencing to the court. In the presentence report, the probation department will consider alcohol and substance abuse evaluations, a defendant's criminal history, mental health evaluations, the defendant's testing in areas of concern, the defendant's statement of what occurred in the case, police reports, the law on the possible sentence range, any limitations on the sentence by plea agreement or law, and their personal feelings on what should occur at sentencing.

Other Professionals Providing Input for the Judge's Decision

Counselors, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and other professionals can prepare reports to give to the court for sentencing in Jefferson and Grand County. Victims might want the judge to know the impact of the crime on them, for example, or a defendant might want the judge to know that a treatable condition, like drug use, played a major role in the crime's commission. By these reports, victims want the court to sentence the accused more harshly and the defendant wants the court to sentence less harsh.

District Attorneys at Sentencing

A judge will always get a sentencing statement from the prosecutor. The district attorney will orchestrate presentation of all negative information on behalf of their victim and against the defendant. The DA will give the court their opinion on how the defendant should be punished, and will request financial restitution.

Victims and Their Family at Sentencing

A very dangerous part of sentencing is when a victim stands in front of the judge and gives a tearful statement on the harm they have suffered at the hands of the defendant. We see some victims who are reasonable, but most are angry and want to get revenge by asking the judge to sentence the defendant harshly. Victims will also ask family members to speak on their behalf if they feel it will help their cause.

The Defense at Sentencing

The defendant is represented at sentencing by their experienced criminal defense lawyer, who understands the motives and thought process of a judge and other parties. Attorneys need to be reasonable and not ask the judge for something he or she can't do by law. So, defense attorneys will ask the judge for a lower sentence based on our reading of the case and the law. We can have family members of the defendant speak, have professionals give opinions and reports to the court to counter those of the government, and teach our client what to say and not to say. Most important, we want a defendant to fully accept responsibility for their conduct in the commission of the crime. While not saying, "I accept responsibility for my crime," we train our clients how to use language to let the court know this is the case. Any statements in this regard must be genuine. Also, a defendant should never try and shift any blame to their victim at sentencing. Defendants can also offer reasons the court should not give them jail or prison, such as their need for continued employment to support family.

A Judge's Toolbox at Sentencing

Sentencing law says that a judge can give a defendant probation or incarceration. With probation, judges can set any condition "reasonably related" to a defendant's rehabilitation. In other words, pretty much anything connected with getting the defendant better so he does not reoffend. This toolbox can include mental health treatment, drug treatment, alcohol treatment, therapy, medicines, employment, community service, restitution, classes on victim empathy like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), GPS monitoring, protection and restraining orders, seeing a probation officer, and payment of court costs and fines. A judge can also impose jail as a condition of probation: up to 60 days for a misdemeanor and 90 days for a felony, or 2 years of work release.

If a judge is required to impose a sentence to jail or prison, they only have a few alternatives. Generally, county jail is the norm on misdemeanors and prison on felony convictions. However, a judge can sentence to Community Corrections for felonies, which is like a halfway house. They can also sentence someone to in-home detention on less serious cases. Sentence ranges are limited by Colorado statute. Certain crimes have mandatory minimums - like crimes of violence (Robbery and Assault) and sex offenses. In some cases, like sexual assault, judges must sentence men and women to an indeterminate or life sentence.

Why You Need an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney at Sentencing

Sentencing is the most important thing in a case after someone has been found guilty or pled guilty. Never go it alone. Colorado's sentencing laws are complex and contain many hidden rules which a defendant can benefit from or be harmed by. You don't want any surprises at sentencing. Our criminal defense lawyers have been conducting sentencing hearings for over twenty-five years. You can greatly benefit from a lesser sentence if you have one of the best criminal defense attorneys at your side. Call our defense lawyers at 303-731-0719 today, for a free in office consultation. We can also visit your family member in the county jail. Together, we can protect your future.

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