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How does a judge determine the length of a criminal sentence?

Criminal sentencing procedures for defendants in Missouri are not necessarily intuitively obvious. A system for sentencing those convicted of felony offenses exists to ensure fairness and consistency across the board for defendants in the state. When considering a sentence length, the judge will generally weigh three factors: the seriousness of the offense, the average sentence for the same crime and the defendant's previous criminal history.

Serious offenders who have prior felony convictions are likely to receive a prison sentence. However, those who have committed lesser offenses, even felonies, may qualify for probation or a diversion program. Criminal defendants who are convicted of a first-time, low-level felony charge may be eligible for drug programs or "institutional shock," which often involves jail terms of 120 days or less. Individuals who complete the jail-based programs are often eligible to be released and serve only probation for the remainder of their sentences.

Sentencing standards exist for five categories of offenses in Missouri. These include violent crimes, sexual and child abuse, drunk driving, drugs and non-violent offenses. Sentencing standards ensure consistency in sentencing within each of those categories, so that defendants are likely to serve similar terms based on the severity of the offense. In some instances, special sentencing designations are used -- mitigating or aggravating -- to either shorten or lengthen the sentence term.

Sentencing requirements help ensure that convicts with similar histories who are found guilty of similar crimes will probably serve comparable terms. The success of the criminal justice system depends on the courts' dedication to providing fair treatment for each criminal defendant. Every person who is charged with felonies in Missouri deserves to receive an unbiased legal proceeding.

Source: Missouri Sentencing Advisory Condition, "What is the System of Recommended Sentencing?" Aug. 18, 2014

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