A sentencing hearing in a Virginia criminal case occurs after a person has pled guilty or is found guilty at trial. Sentencing can work in different ways depending on the seriousness of the offense, the class of felony or misdemeanor conviction, whether the sentencing is a result of a plea agreement rather than a jury or bench trial, and many other factors. It can be frightening to be at the stage in your criminal case where you know the next step is to be sentenced. This is why it is so important to have an experienced criminal defense attorney representing you who can protect your legal rights and present the strongest possible case in the hopes of minimizing the punishment imposed by the court.
When and How Does Sentencing Occur in Virginia Criminal Cases?
The point at which someone is sentenced first depends on whether the charges are misdemeanors or felonies, and whether the case is in General District Court, Circuit Court, or Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court. In misdemeanor cases in General District Court and Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, sentencing can occur immediately after a plea is entered or there is a finding of guilt at trial. Moreover, in General District Court and Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, there are often agreed outcomes to cases—in other words, a specific punishment is recommended to the judge by the prosecutor in agreement with the defense. In most cases, there is no additional court hearing scheduled for sentencing, but that is not always the case. In complex misdemeanors, it is possible to have sentencing at a separate time.
In felony cases that are heard in Circuit Court, the process can be completely different. Typically, Circuit Court felonies where there is no trial will have at least a plea date and a sentencing date. The plea date is the date when the accused formally states that he has committed the offense charged. The case is usually continued for preparation of a presentence report and submission of written arguments.
If a Circuit Court felony or misdemeanor is tried to a jury, the same jury that found the accused guilty of the charge considers evidence of the individual's background and other factors, along with all the information they heard about the offense conduct, to determine an appropriate sentence. The jury does not get to review anything like sentencing guidelines or hear about how similarly situated individuals are punished by judges or other juries. Thereafter, the judge typically holds another hearing to determine what punishment should be imposed. The judge will have a presentence report available to review, sentencing guidelines, and information submitted to the attorneys for each side. The judge's function is to review the jury's sentence and decide how much, if any, of the punishment should be modified in some way. Judges are typically reluctant to modify juries' verdicts.
Mitigating Factors That Can Affect Your Sentence
There are both mitigating factors and aggravating factors that can affect a person’s sentence. Some of the mitigating factors that can result in a lighter sentence include:
- Lack of a criminal record
- Family history
- Education level
- Employment history and current employment
- Person’s financial or emotional responsibility for others in his life that can be affected if he is sentenced to prison
- Facts about the person’s childhood
- Regret and remorse for committing the crime
- Conviction for a less serious offense in relation to other crimes
- Any other facts in the person’s life that a criminal defense attorney believes may result in a more lenient sentence
There are also post-arrest actions that a person can take that may result in him receiving a lighter sentence, which includes:
- Having mental health and substance abuse evaluations performed and receiving appropriate treatment if these are problems
- Performing community service
- Obtaining letters of recommendation
Aggravating Factors That Can Result in a Harsher Sentence
Aggravating factors, much like mitigating factors, are case- and client-specific. Some common aggravating factors include:
- Nature of the offense and whether any violence was involved
- Nature of the victim and whether the victim suffered any injuries or significant financial loss
- Prior convictions for this offense and other crimes
- Victim impact statements
How Our Experienced Criminal Defense Attorneys Can Help
Are you facing criminal charges? If you enter a guilty plea or are found guilty at trial, the sentencing phase of your case is just as important as the trial or events leaading up to the sentencing. An experienced criminal defense attorney will understand the aggravating and mitigating factors that can influence your sentence. He will know which mitigating factors can help you the most and how to effectively present an argument to the judge or jury as to why you should receive a less harsh sentence.
At Greenspun Shapiro PC, our skilled attorneys have decades of experience aggressively fighting for the rights of our clients facing criminal charges. We are not afraid to take these cases to trial when it is in our client’s best interests. To learn how we can help you build a strong defense to the charges you face, call our Fairfax office or start an online chat to schedule your free consultation.