Sentence (law)

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The term sentence in law refers to punishment, penalty or physical restraint that was actually imposed or could be ordered by a trial court in a criminal procedure.[1] A sentence forms the final explicit act of a judge-ruled process as well as the symbolic principal act connected to their function. The sentence can generally involve a decree of imprisonment and/or restitution against a defendant convicted of a crime or violation of law. Inmates imprisoned for multiple crimes usually serve a concurrent sentence in which the period of imprisonment equals the length of the longest sentence where the sentences are all served together at the same time, while others serve a consecutive sentence in which the period of imprisonment equals the sum of all the sentences served sequentially, or one after the other.[2] A sentence may be intermediate, which allows an inmate to be free for about 8 hours a day for work purposes; determinate, which is fixed on a number of days, months, or years; and indeterminate or bifurcated,[3] which mandates the minimum period be served in an institutional setting such as a prison with the remaining months or years on parole or supervised release. This latter period is known as "street time" in many jurisdictions,[4] which is a rehabilitation process and is the opposite of punishment, penalty or physical restraint because it has been created to help people become educated and productive individuals.[5] It involves similar difficult challenges that students experience in obtaining a work certificate or an academic degree.

If a sentence is reduced to a less harsh punishment, then the sentence is said to have been mitigated or commuted. Rarely depending on circumstances, murder charges are mitigated and reduced to manslaughter charges. However, in certain legal systems, a defendant may be punished beyond the terms of the sentence social stigma, loss of governmental benefits, or collectively, the collateral consequences of criminal charges.

Statutes often specify the highest sentences that may be imposed for certain offenses, and then the advisory sentencing guidelines set the minimum and maximum imprisonment terms that may be imposed upon an offender,[6] which is then left to the discretion of the trial court to choose the period of imprisonment and parole or supervised release.[7][1] It is well established in the United States that when a court orders an individual to serve "four months" in prison then the entire sentence imposed is "four months", regardless what is stated as the maximum sentence in the advisory sentencing guidelines.[8][6][1] In other words, any imposed "street time" that was completed does not count as imprisonment.[4][5] This is especially true for purposes of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).[8]

However, in some jurisdictions, prosecutors have great influence over the punishments actually handed down, by virtue of their discretion to decide what offenses to charge the offender with and what facts they will seek to prove or to ask the defendant to stipulate to in a plea agreement. It has been argued that legislators have an incentive to enact tougher sentences than even they would like to see applied to the typical defendant since they recognize that the blame for an inadequate sentencing range to handle a particularly egregious crime would fall upon legislators, but the blame for excessive punishments would fall upon prosecutors.[9]

Sentencing law sometimes includes cliffs that result in much stiffer penalties when certain facts apply. For instance, an armed career criminal or habitual offender law may subject a defendant to a significant increase in his sentence if he commits a third offence of a certain kind. This makes it difficult for fine gradations in punishments to be achieved.


Felony Sentences in State Courts, study by the United States Department of Justice.

The first use of this word with this meaning was in Roman law, where it indicated the opinion of a jurist on a given question, expressed in written or in oral responsa. It was also the opinion of senators that was translated into the senatus consultus. It finally was also the decision of the judging organ both in civil and in penal trials, as well as the decision of the Arbiters in arbitration.

In modern Latin systems, the sentence is mainly the final act of any procedure in which a judge, or more generally an organ is called to express his evaluation, therefore it can be issued practically in any field of law requiring a function of evaluation of something by an organ.


Sentences are variously classified depending on

  • the legal field, or kind of action, or system it refers to:
    • civil, penal, administrative, canon, sentence.
    • sentences of mere clearance, of condemnation, of constitution.
  • the issuing organ typically a monocratic judge or a court, or other figures that receive a legitimation by the system.
  • the jurisdiction and the legal competence single judges, courts, tribunals, appeals, supreme courts, constitutional courts, meant as the various degrees of judgement and appeal.
  • the content:
    • partial, cautelar, interlocutory, preliminar sententia instructoria, definitive sentences.
    • sentence of absolutio discharge or condemnatio briefly damnatio, also for other meanings condemnation. The sentences of condemnation are also classified by the penalty they determine:
      • sentence of reclusion,
      • sentence of fee,
      • sententia agendi, sentence that impose a determined action or a series of action as a penalty for the illegal act. This kind of sentence became better developed and remained in wider use in common law systems.


The sentence meted out depends on the philosophical principle used by the court and what the legal system regards as the purpose of punishment. The most common purposes of sentencing are:

Theory Aim of theory Suitable punishment
Retribution Punishment imposed for no reason other than an offense being committed, on the basis that if proportionate, punishment is morally acceptable as a response that satisfies the aggrieved party, their intimates and society.
  • Tariff sentences
  • Sentence must be proportionate to the crime
Deterrence of the individual

The individual is deterred through fear of further punishment.

  • Long prison sentence
  • Heavy fine
Deterrence of others

The general public are warned of likely punishment.

  • Long prison sentence
  • Heavy fine
  • Depends on others being aware of the sentence.
Denunciation Society expressing its disapproval reinforcing moral boundaries
  • Reflects blameworthiness of offense
Incapacitation protection of the public Offender is made incapable of committing further crime to protect society at large from crime.
  • Long prison sentence
  • Electronic tagging
  • Banning orders
Rehabilitation To reform the offender's behavior
  • Individualized sentences
  • Community service orders
Reparation Repayment to victims or to community
  • Compensation
  • Unpaid work
  • Reparation schemes

In England and Wales, section 142 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 has specified that in cases involving those over 18, courts should have regard to punishment of the offenders retribution, deterrence, reform and rehabilitation, protection of the public, and reparation to persons affected by their offences.[10]


Usually, the sentence comes after a process in which the deciding organ is put in condition to evaluate whether the analysed conduct complies or not with the legal systems, and eventually which aspects of the conduct might regard which laws. Depending on respective systems, the phases that precede the sentence may vary relevantly and the sentence can be resisted by both parties up to a given degree of appeal. The sentence issued by the appellate court of highest admitted degree immediately becomes the definitive sentence, as well as the sentence issued in minor degrees that is not resisted by the condemned or by the accusator or is not resisted within a given time. The sentence usually has to be rendered of public domain publicatio, and in most systems, it has to be accompanied by the reasons for its content a sort of story of the juridical reflections and evaluations that the judging organ used to produce it.

A sentence even a definitive one can be annulled in some given cases, which many systems usually pre-determine. The most frequent case is related to irregularities found ex-post in the procedure. The most éclatant is perhaps in penal cases, when a relevant often discharging proof is discovered after the definitive sentence.

In most systems, the definitive sentence is unique, in the precise sense that no one can be judged more than once for the same action apart, obviously, from appeal resistance.

Sentences are in many systems a source of law, as an authoritative interpretation of the law in front of concrete cases, thus quite as an extension of the ordinary formal documental system.

The sentence is typically determined by a judge jury sentencing and/or jury and issued in the name of or on the behalf of the superior authority of the state.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(48)
    • "United States v. Valencia-Mendoza, 912 F.3d 1215". Ninth Circuit. Harvard Law School. January 10, 2019. p. 1224. In sum, the Supreme Court has held that courts must consider both a crime's statutory elements and sentencing factors when determining whether an offense is 'punishable' by a certain term of imprisonment.
    • "United States v. McAdory, 935 F.3d 838". Ninth Circuit. Harvard Law School. August 28, 2019. p. 844. None of McAdory's prior convictions had standard sentencing ranges exceeding one year, nor were any accompanied by written findings of any of the statutory factors that would justify an upward departure. Thus, the district court convicted McAdory under § 922(g)(1) even though he had no predicate offenses within the meaning of the statute.
    • "United States v. Williams, 5 F.4th 973". Ninth Circuit. July 16, 2021. The panel held that the Washington offense of theft from a vulnerable adult in the second degree was not 'punishable by a term of imprisonment exceeding one year' when the statutory maximum sentence exceeded one year but the maximum sentence allowed under the State's mandatory sentencing guidelines did not. Accordingly, the district court erred in determining that the defendant committed a Grade B supervised release violation.
    • "United States v. Haltiwanger, 637 F.3d 881". Eighth Circuit. Harvard Law School. March 25, 2011. p. 884.
    • "United States v. Hisey, ___ F.4th ___, No. 20-3106". Tenth Circuit. September 14, 2021.
  2. ^ "Consecutive Sentence". Legal Information Institute (LII). Retrieved 2019-02-01.
  3. ^ "State v. Cole, 262 Wis. 2d 167, 2003 WI 59, 663 N.W.2d 700 (2003)". Wisconsin Supreme Court. Harvard Law School. June 19, 2003. p. 177.
  4. ^ a b "Kazickas v. Pa. Bd. of Prob. & Parole, 226 A.3d 109". Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. February 7, 2020. p. 111 n.2. 'Street time' refers to 'the period of time a parolee spends at liberty on parole.'
  5. ^ a b See, e.g., "Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471 (1972)". U.S. Supreme Court. Harvard Law School. June 29, 1972. p. 482. The liberty of a parolee enables him to do a wide range of things open to persons who have never been convicted of any crime.
    • "United States v. Pettus, 303 F.3d 480". Second Circuit. Harvard Law School. September 9, 2002. p. 483. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, Pub.L. No. 98-473 tit. II, § 212(a)(2), 98 Stat. 1837, 1987, replaced most forms of parole with supervised release overseen by the sentencing court.
    • "United States v. Pray, 373 F.3d 358". Third Circuit. Harvard Law School. July 2, 2004. p. 361. A person who is on parole, although subject to some restraints on liberty, is not 'imprisoned' in the sense in which the term is usually used. For example, if a parolee were informed at the end of a parole revocation hearing that the outcome was 'imprisonment,' the parolee would not think that this meant that he was going to be returned to parole.
  6. ^ a b "Beckles v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 886 (2017)". U.S. Supreme Court. Harvard Law School. March 6, 2017. p. 890. At the time of petitioner's sentencing, the advisory Sentencing Guidelines included a residual clause.... Because we hold that the advisory Guidelines are not subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, we reject petitioner's argument.
  7. ^ See, e.g.,
    • "42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 9756". Pennsylvania General Assembly.
      • "Commonwealth v. Martin, 466 Pa. 118, 351 A.2d 650 (1976)". Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Harvard Law School. January 29, 1976. p. 133. The sentence must be imposed for the minimum amount of confinement that is consistent with the protection of the public, the gravity of the offense, and the rehabilitative needs of the defendant.
        • "Commonwealth v. Stein, 39 A.3d 365". Superior Court of Pennsylvania. Harvard Law School. February 7, 2012. p. 367 n.1. The usual practice in this Commonwealth is that the minimum sentence cannot exceed one-half of the maximum sentence, and a flat sentence is an illegal sentence.
  8. ^ a b "Vartelas v. Holder, 566 U.S. 257 (2012)". U.S. Supreme Court. Harvard Law School. p. 260.
    • "Vartelas v. Holder, 620 F.3d 108". Second Circuit. Harvard Law School. September 9, 2010. p. 110. That offense carried a maximum term of imprisonment of five years. The range of imprisonment recommended by the Sentencing Guidelines ('Guidelines') was 4-10 months; the prison term imposed on Vartelas was four months.
    • "Romano v. Luther, 816 F.2d 832". Second Circuit. Harvard Law School. April 3, 1987. p. 837. The Sentencing Reform Act makes a major change in federal sentencing and parole practices by replacing indeterminate sentences and parole with determinate sentences and no parole.
  9. ^ William J. Stuntz (Jun 2004), Plea Bargaining and Criminal Law's Disappearing Shadow, 117, Harvard Law Review, pp. 2548–2569
  10. ^ "Criminal Justice Act: Section 142",, The National Archives, 2003 c. 44 (s. 142)

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