When someone is convicted of a crime, sometimes his or her sentence will surprise you. State and federal laws give us a range of sentences for different crimes. But why, if two people have committed the same crime, does one person get a lesser sentence than the other?
Because every case is different, every judge is different, and therefore, every ruling is different.
Let’s look at a recent controversial case in California. Brock Turner, 23, was sentenced to six months in prison after being found guilty on three counts of sexual assault.
In some cases involving similar crimes in California, the defendant is sentenced to three, six, or even eight years in prison. Turner’s “light” sentence has caused major controversy throughout the country, with millions of people calling for the judge involved to step down from his position.
So why did he choose the sentence he did? That’s a question only he can answer. But below I hope to shed some light on how judges decide in general by sharing an interview with Ramsey County District Judge Judith Tilson.
What Impacts a Judge’s Decision?
Minnesota Public Radio interviewed Tilsen about the Turner case and other sex crimes cases in Minnesota, including some that she has judged herself. The interview allowed MPR to pick the judge’s brain and figure out what determines the sentences she gives. Here are some of the highlights:
Defendant Statement – Judge Tilsen has heard many different written and oral statements from both victims and defendants, but prefers to look at the “whole picture.” She did mention, however, that the remorse of a defendant (or lack thereof) does affect her sentencing.
Statements from friends and family – Judge Tilsen mentioned that it’s not unusual for family members, friends, and acquaintances of a defendant to send letters vouching for the individual, asking the judge be kind with his or her sentence. While Judge Tilsen says she reads and responds to the letters, they don’t “really sway me very much.”
Pre-sentence investigation – Before felony cases are heard, probation officers put together a full background of the defendant that includes past criminal convictions, the defendant’s family background, current familial situation, and any involvement with drug use and/or rehabilitation. This helps to frame the “whole picture” that judges like Tilsen look at while determining sentences.
Sentencing Guidelines – In Minnesota, judges look at a grid the state has devised for sentencing. It encompasses a number of crimes as well as various individual criminal histories. The more crimes you have committed and the more serious the crime is deemed to be, the harsher your sentence will be.
Aggravating and Mitigating Factors – If a judge thinks the sentence given by the state’s guidelines is not harsh enough for a specific case, they then need to claim that the case has aggravating factors. A jury must determine and present these aggravating factors to a judge.
However, a jury does not have to find or present mitigating factors to a judge. These are factors that could lessen someone’s sentence.
Judge Tilsen says she usually lessens a sentence when the defendant is in need of rehabilitation, rather than punishment. If a defendant needs mental health treatment, treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, or treatment specific to sex offenders, she will then look at whether or not the defendant is open and willing to comply with treatment. That can sway the judge’s decision.
Your Behavior in and Out of Court Matters
As you can see, a whole range of issues can sway a judge while he or she determines your sentence. Some factors you have little control over once you have been charged. But others you do.
Specifically, displaying overall good behavior in court and a willingness to seek treatment are key to proving your innocence or receiving a shorter sentence. For more defense strategies and ways to plead your innocence to a judge, contact a Minnesota sex crimes lawyer today.
About the Author:
Christopher Keyser is a Minneapolis-based criminal and DWI defense attorney known for fighting aggressively for his clients and utilizing innovative tactics to get the most positive results. He has been featured in numerous media outlets due to the breadth and depth of his knowledge, and recognized as a Minnesota Super Lawyers Rising Star (2014–2015), a Top 100 Trial Lawyer (2013–2015), and a Top 40 Under 40 Attorney (2013–2015).