How Do Judges Decide on Sentences in Utah?

In criminal cases, the judge takes on a few important roles. The judge makes sure court hearings follow the correct procedures and standards, determines whether evidence is admissible, gives the jury instructions, determines matters of law, and, finally, determines the sentence in cases where the defendant is convicted. However, sentences aren’t always cut-and-dry. On the contrary, many state laws provide for a sentencing range up to a certain maximum, and it’s up to the judge to determine exactly how many months (or years) the offender should receive within that range. If you or a family member was charged with a crime, you should consult with an experienced Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer. Criminal lawyer Darwin Overson is here to explain how judges decide sentences in Utah.

Sentencing Factors in Utah

There are a variety of reasons that explain the purpose of a criminal sentence. Judges must balance the interests of the public and the interests of the offender to determine an appropriate sentence. One objective judges aim to achieve during sentencing is “risk management.”

Risk management means the judge must impose a penalty that is “proportionate to the gravity of the offense and the culpability of the offender.” By giving offenders a proportional penalty for their crimes, judges hope to hold offenders accountable for their actions without ordering an unfair punishment. If the punishment is not adequate to deter an offender from committing future crimes, then it is too weak. Alternatively, if the punishment is too severe, an offender will have no reason to consider rehabilitation because they may believe they have faced the worst punishment imaginable. That is why it is important for a judge to strike a balance when deciding on a sentence.

Another objective of sentencing is to “incapacitate” an offender for an appropriate amount of time. Incapacitation means keeping an offender separate from others to avoid potential future crime.

Maximum Utah Prison Sentences

First, sentencing law establishes the maximum possible sentences for each offense grading. In Utah, misdemeanors are indicated by a letter, while felonies are separated by numbered degrees. Generally, misdemeanors carry less severe penalties than felonies. The lower the number, the more serious the felony. The same principle applies to misdemeanors, as you can tell from looking at the criminal penalties listed below:

  • Class C Misdemeanor
    • Maximum Jail Sentence – 90 days
    • Examples – Public intoxication or driving with a suspended license
  • Class B Misdemeanor
    • Maximum Jail Sentence – 6 months
    • Examples – Simple Assault, DUI
  • Class A Misdemeanor
    • Maximum Jail Sentence – 1 year
    • Examples – Negligent Homicide, Criminal Mischief
  • Third Degree Felony
  • Second Degree Felony
    • Sentence Range – 1 to 15 years
    • Examples – Manslaughter, Robbery, Kidnapping
  • First Degree Felony
    • Sentence Range – 5 years to life imprisonment
    • Examples – Murder, Rape, Aggravated Burglary

The above list doesn’t include “violations,” which are not actually crimes. Violations can be fined, but incarceration is not a possibility. At the other end of the spectrum, aggravated murder is Utah’s only “capital felony,” meaning it is the only crime in Utah subject to capital punishment (i.e., the death penalty).

Additionally, it’s important to note that the same crime can span a few different levels of categorization depending on the details specific to the incident. For example, under Utah Code § 76-5-102, the crime of simple assault can be a Class B or Class A misdemeanor.

Aggravating and Mitigating Factors in Sentencing

One of the major factors that impact sentencing determinations are the presence or absence of aggravating or mitigating factors. Aggravating factors may increase penalties while mitigating factors reduce them. As you can see, some of the ranges listed above are extremely broad.  For example, a second degree felony conviction could lead to one year in prison — or 15. Aggravating and mitigating factors could make the difference between a one-year or 10-year sentence.

Common aggravating factors that can increase a criminal sentence include:

  • Causing a victim “substantial bodily injury,”
  • Committing an offense that is “extremely cruel or depraved,”
  • Holding a “position of authority” over your victim, and
  • Targeting a victim that was “unusually ”

Penalties can also be enhanced under various circumstances. Enhancement means that a criminal penalty is increased due to certain circumstances, like a person committing a crime with a dangerous weapon or on school property. Usually, the law does not require that the victim was aware that they were violating these additional factors. That means arguing you did not know you were in a school zone cannot stop the enhancement from applying. However, most enhancements need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to increase your penalties.

Utah also identifies some mitigating factors that can reduce a criminal sentence:

  • Being “exceptionally cooperative” with law enforcement,
  • The defendant was a first-time offender or has the potential for rehabilitation, and
  • The offender possessed “developmental disabilities” when they committed the crime.

Utah’s criminal sentencing guidelines are periodically published (and analyzed) in reports assembled by the Utah Sentencing Commission. In its own words, the Sentencing Commission “consists of… judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, legislators, victims, law enforcement, treatment specialists, ethnic minorities, corrections, [and] parole authorities.”

While judges do refer to the Sentencing Commission’s guidelines, they are not necessarily bound to follow them. As stated by the Commission in its 2014 Adult Sentencing and Release Guidelines, “Judges are encouraged to sentence within the guidelines unless they find aggravating or mitigating circumstances justifying departure.” This supports another statement taken from the earlier 2012 Guidelines, which explains, “Guidelines should promote uniformity while, at the same time, afford[ing] the sentencing judge… the flexibility to fashion a specific sentence to an individual offender.”

When it comes to the judge’s pronouncement of the sentence, convicted offenders have two options. They can either:

  1. Choose the standard option, which means they will be sentenced somewhere between two and 45 days after being convicted.
  2. Waive the normal timeline and receive their sentence the same day they are convicted.

Cases involving aggravated murder work a little differently. In those cases, the defense attorney will try to establish mitigating factors during a special sentencing hearing, while the prosecutor can counter with evidence of aggravating factors. Based on the balance of aggravating and mitigating factors, aggravated murder could receive either the death penalty or life in prison.

Generally speaking, Utah seldom uses the death penalty. From 2008 to 2013, Utah prosecutors sought the death penalty against only seven out of 54 aggravated murder defendants. The last execution was carried out in 2010 by firing squad. There are currently nine men on Utah’s death row, all of which have filed criminal appeals in state or federal court.

Utah Criminal Defense Attorneys Will Fight for You

If you or a family member was charged with a crime, you should seek help from an experienced Layton criminal defense lawyer like Darwin Overson. Darwin has over 16 years of experience fighting for clients caught up in Utah’s criminal justice system. To schedule a free consultation with Overson & Bugden, call us at (801) 758-2287, or reach us online.