Criminal Sentencing in Virginia

Criminal sentencing is a major part of the Virginia judicial system, and therefore, it is very important to have a robust defense on your side as you go through the legal process. By having a strong defense, you are able to fight for your rights and your freedom. For this reason, it is in your best interest to retain a Virginia criminal defense attorney, who will work diligently to ensure the consequences you are facing for your charges are minimized as much as possible.

Misdemeanor Sentencing

Misdemeanor cases in the General District Court will be heard by a judge, who will also impose the sentence after conviction. If the individual is not satisfied with the result of their case, they can appeal their case to the Circuit Court. In the Circuit Court, an individual can either have a jury trial or a judge trial.

In the case of a judge trial, the judge would determine the sentencing. In the case of a jury trial, the jury would determine the sentence in a separate phase after determining whether the individual is guilty or innocent. In these types of cases the jury would go back to the jury rooms, reconvene and come back with appropriate sentencing that is within the proper sentencing guidelines. It depends on what stage your case is as to whether it is a misdemeanor in the General District Court or whether it is on appeal in the Circuit Courts and whether you have a jury or a judge sentence.

Felony Sentencing

There are no pleas or trials for felonies in General District Court. The case has to be indicted at the Circuit Court to have a trial right away. Otherwise, the defendant will be set for something called a preliminary hearing in General District court, where the prosecution will show the judge sufficient evidence to have the case set for trial, or the defendant will be able to enter into a plea agreement with the prosecution.

If a plea is reached then two things may happen. Either the individual will have an agreement with the prosecutor for an agreed upon sentence and amount of time, which the judge can then accept or reject, or the defendant can plea straight up. If the plea is straight up then the probation officer will do a background check and come up with a recommendation. The prosecutor and defense attorney will then argue on an appropriate sentence, of which the judge will ultimately decide.

If a Plea is Not Reached

If a plea is not reached before trial, the case will be heard in Circuit Court, which can be either a bench or jury trial. In the case of a bench trial, if found guilty, the judge will decide the individual’s sentence after argument from both the prosecutor and the defense attorney.

If it is a jury trial and the jury finds the individual guilty, the jury will then have a sentencing hearing for the jury to determine what the appropriate sentencing should be. The attorney and the prosecutor will both be able to present evidence and make arguments about what they think your sentence should be. The jury will then go back to the deliberation room, deliberate and come back with a unanimous decision as to what the appropriate sentence is. That is usually approved by a judge. A judge can reduce a jury sentence but cannot go above it.

Aggravating Factors

Criminal history is probably the biggest aggravating factor that can affect the sentencing hearings. A prior record for similar offenses or other bad offenses can aggravate and make your sentences worse. That is a primary factor. Any heinous crime or gruesome crime that makes it more severe can also be an aggravating factor. Also, an individual’s cooperation with the law enforcement can be an aggravating factor in the cases. The primary factor that is an aggravating factor for sentencing cases in Virginia is the prior criminal history if any.

Mitigating Factors

A lack of criminal history can certainly impact sentencing. Additionally, having done community service and leading an otherwise outstanding life, can benefit an individual if their charges are very minimal, not very severe, not very heinous or gruesome in any way to the society, or have not impacted too much. Mental health issues, upbringing, education level, and the circumstances surrounding the crime itself may also all come into play in sentencing.

Benefit of an Attorney

An attorney can help by knowing what the aggravating factors are and what the mitigating factors may be to help put forth the best mitigation package that they can. Attorneys have experience in arguing for mitigation during sentencing. They know what works, they know what the judges want to hear and they know what factors are important. Additionally, they can advise the individual beforehand of what they are facing the sentencing wise.