A sentence is a formal judgment pronouncing a specific punishment to be imposed for the conviction of a crime. It may involve the payment of a fine, community service, incarceration, or, in capital offenses, the death penalty. It also may consist of a term of probation or parole (although parole has been abolished in many states).
Sentences may be meted out directly following the entry of a verdict or at a “sentencing hearing” scheduled for a later date. In the interim, prosecutors prepare a “sentencing report” which advises the court of the defendant’s prior criminal record, aggravating or mitigating circumstances, and other information about the defendant that may assist the court in deciding an appropriate punishment.
There have been concerted efforts over the years to standardize the approach toward sentencing, particularly in felony offenses, and to diminish judicial discretion in sentencing. These efforts reflect a vacillating but recurring perception by lawmakers and the public at large that arbitrary or discriminatory practices may interfere with fair and just sentencing in certain cases or for certain crimes. However, the U.S. Supreme Court severely limited the ability of the federal government and state governments to enacted uniform sentencing guidelines when the Court ruled that these mandatory guidelines were unconstitutional.