The Sentencing Hearing

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

The sentencing hearing, an essential event within the field of criminal justice, happens after a defendant is declared guilty in a criminal trial. To understand this concept, it’s crucial to know that a criminal trial operates in two parts. The first part is where the defendant is found guilty or not guilty. If the defendant is found guilty, the trial moves to the second part, known as the sentencing phase.

In the sentencing phase, which is the sentencing hearing, both the prosecution and the defense have the opportunity to influence the judge’s decision on the appropriate punishment. The prosecution might present aggravating factors—details that could warrant a harsher penalty. On the other hand, the defense might bring up mitigating factors—elements that might justify a lighter sentence.

These factors can include the defendant’s criminal history, the nature of the crime committed, the impact on the victim, and any remorse shown by the defendant. The attorneys for both sides will make their cases based on these points, essentially arguing for the punishment they believe the defendant deserves.

The judge, in turn, plays an important role in the sentencing hearing. The judge does not merely passively receive these arguments; rather, they actively evaluate the presented information. They base their decision on several aspects, including the sentencing guidelines, case law, and their discretion.

Sentencing guidelines are regulations that establish a uniform sentencing policy for individuals convicted of felonies and serious misdemeanors. These guidelines provide a range within which the judge can impose a sentence, often based on the seriousness of the crime and the offender’s criminal history.

Case law refers to the decisions of past court cases that have set a precedent. Judges often rely on these previous decisions to ensure consistency in the legal system.

Lastly, the judge uses their discretion to assess the unique circumstances of each case. They consider whether certain factors warrant a punishment that’s harsher or lighter than what the guidelines recommend. This blend of regulation, precedent, and judgment ensures a balance between fairness and flexibility in sentencing.

Significant Supreme Court Cases

United States v. Booker (2005)

The Supreme Court case United States v. Booker in 2005 clarified the role of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The accused, Booker, was found guilty of possession with intent to distribute cocaine. His sentence was extended based on a judge’s findings, which were not reflected in the jury’s verdict.

The legal issue revolved around the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to trial by jury. The Supreme Court decided that the sentencing guidelines were advisory, not mandatory. The decision’s rationale was that only a jury, not a judge, can find facts that increase a sentence beyond the maximum under the guidelines.

Alleyne v. United States (2013)

Another influential case, Alleyne v. United States (2013), further defined sentencing procedures. Alleyne was convicted of using a firearm during a robbery. He challenged his increased sentence based on a fact not determined by the jury.

The Supreme Court decision stated that a jury must find any fact leading to a mandatory minimum sentence. This decision reinforced the Sixth Amendment’s protection of the right to a jury trial. The Court’s rationale was that juries, not judges, must decide on facts that increase a sentence beyond a certain limit.

Kimbrough v. United States (2007)

The case of Kimbrough v. United States (2007) centered around the disparity in sentencing for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. Kimbrough was sentenced to a term exceeding the federal guidelines for crack cocaine offenses.

The Supreme Court ruled that judges can deviate from the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The decision’s rationale was that judges must consider the nature and circumstances of the offense, including the type of drug involved. It stressed the importance of individualized sentencing.


The sentencing hearing, a pivotal aspect of the criminal justice system, follows the guilt phase of a trial. In this hearing, both the prosecution and defense present arguments, introducing aggravating or mitigating factors to guide the judge’s decision on punishment. The judge, actively involved in this process, relies on sentencing guidelines, case law, and their discretion to determine the appropriate sentence. They must balance consistency with the flexibility to address each case’s unique circumstances.

Three Supreme Court cases—United States v. Booker, Alleyne v. United States, and Kimbrough v. United States—have significantly shaped sentencing procedures. These cases illuminated the interplay between the jury’s role, the judge’s discretion, the sentencing guidelines, and the Sixth Amendment rights, ultimately highlighting the intricacies of the sentencing hearing process.


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

Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85 (2007).

Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99 (2013).


Modification History

File Created:  08/08/2018

Last Modified:  07/27/2023

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

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License



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