Sentence Appeals

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

Sentence appeals are specific to challenging the legality or fairness of the punishment given by a lower court. They provide a vital safety mechanism within the criminal justice system, ensuring that a defendant’s sentence is both lawful and just. In the event that a mistake was made during the sentencing process or if the punishment is deemed overly harsh or inconsistent with similar cases, a sentence appeal offers an opportunity for redress. This can include modifying the sentence or even overturning it entirely if a significant error occurred.

The importance of sentence appeals cannot be overstated, as they serve to uphold the principles of justice, fairness, and the rule of law. They ensure that sentencing complies with legal standards, constitutional rights, and established guidelines. Beyond the individual case, sentence appeals also contribute to the development of legal precedent, guiding future decisions and maintaining consistency across the legal system. The balance between the need for punishment and the rights of the individual is delicately maintained through the process of appealing sentences, making it a critical aspect of criminal jurisprudence.

Methods of Sentence Appeals

Arguing Legal Error

When a sentence appeal is based on legal error, it suggests that the judge made a mistake in interpreting or applying the law during the sentencing phase. This could include errors like misapplying a sentencing guideline, incorrect calculations, or misunderstanding statutory mandates.

For instance, if a judge applies a harsher sentence based on a statute that doesn’t apply to the particular case, an appellate court may find that a legal error has occurred. Such mistakes can lead to unjust sentences and may result in an appeal that either modifies or vacates the original sentence.

Challenging Discretionary Decisions

Judges have discretion in determining sentences within legal bounds. However, this discretion must be exercised responsibly. If a defendant believes that the judge abused this discretion, they may appeal the sentence.

An abuse of discretion might occur if the judge gives undue weight to certain factors or ignores relevant information that should have been considered. These decisions must be reasonable and supported by evidence. If an appellate court finds that the judge acted arbitrarily or capriciously, it may overturn or modify the sentence.

Proportionality Appeals

Proportionality appeals are based on the argument that the sentence is excessive compared to the severity of the crime. This method refers to the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, which requires that punishment must be proportionate to the offense.

For example, if a minor, non-violent offense leads to an extraordinarily long prison sentence, a defendant might argue that the punishment is disproportionate. An appellate court reviewing such a case would examine whether the sentence is in line with sentences for similar crimes and consider the specific facts and circumstances of the offense.

Landmark Cases

United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005)

Facts: Freddie Joe Booker’s sentence was increased under mandatory guidelines.

Legal Issues: Whether the mandatory sentencing guidelines violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.

Court’s Decision: The court ruled that the guidelines must be advisory.

Decision’s Rationale: The court decided that the sentencing factors must be proven to a jury or admitted by the defendant, ensuring fair sentencing practices.

Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004)

Facts: Ralph Howard Blakely’s sentence was enhanced without jury fact-finding.

Legal Issues: Whether the enhanced sentencing violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.

Court’s Decision: The court ruled that the sentence enhancement was unconstitutional.

Decision’s Rationale: The court concluded that all facts used to increase a sentence beyond the statutory maximum must be found by a jury.

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010)

Facts: Terrance Graham was sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide offense committed as a juvenile.

Legal Issues: Whether the life sentence without the possibility of parole violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Court’s Decision: The court ruled the sentence was unconstitutional.

Decision’s Rationale: The court decided that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses, considering the sentence disproportionate to the crime.


Sentence appeals are instrumental in maintaining the integrity and fairness of the criminal justice system. They act as a critical check on the lower courts by enabling defendants to challenge potentially unjust or unlawful sentences. Through methods such as arguing legal error, challenging discretionary decisions, and making proportionality appeals, defendants can seek redress for sentences that do not comply with legal standards or constitutional rights.

These appeals serve to uphold core principles of justice, fairness, and the rule of law. They help prevent mistakes in the sentencing process, whether through misapplication of law, abuse of discretion, or disproportionate punishment. Landmark Supreme Court cases like United States v. Booker, Blakely v. Washington, and Graham v. Florida have further defined these principles and provide essential guidance for lower courts. The process of appealing sentences, therefore, is not only crucial for individual defendants but also plays a key role in shaping the broader legal framework and ensuring consistency across the legal system.


United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005)

Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004)

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010)


Modification History

File Created:  08/08/2018

Last Modified:  08/01/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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