Criminal Punishment

What happens after conviction.

After your trial, the court will impose its sentence on you for the crime you committed. The Eight Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the court from subjecting you to "cruel and unusual punishment." Among other things, this means that the punishment must fit the crime. But deciding what punishment is permissible in light of the Eighth Amendment can be a difficult task.

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While it's fairly obvious that imposing the death penalty on someone convicted of a first time burglary is almost certainly cruel and unusual punishment, the courts have allowed persons with multiple convictions for non-violent crimes such as writing bad checks to be sentenced to life in prison without parole as habitual offenders. In other cases, persons sentenced to lengthy prison terms for the possession of small amounts of marijuana have also been upheld when challenged on Eighth Amendment grounds. On the other hand, physical abuse, such as beatings and torture, have consistently been held to constitute the kind of cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

In addition to fines and imprisonment, the federal government and an increasing number of states have begun to seek the forfeiture of property used in the commission of a crime, or gained through criminal activity. In a number of cases, courts have even allowed the government to seize the property of persons who were not charged with any crimes themselves. For example, in one case a restaurant was forfeited by its owners after a bartender was charged with selling drugs on the premises, despite the fact that the owners of the restaurant had no knowledge of the bartender's criminal activities.

With our nation's prisons filling up more quickly than ever, criminal courts have turned to other kinds of sentences as an alternative to imprisonment. One of the more traditional alternatives is probation. Probation allows the person convicted of a crime to remain free, subject to restrictions imposed by the court. For example, a convict on probation may be required to check in with a probation officer on a regular basis, and may be prohibited from leaving the state without the court's permission. If the convict violates these or any other reasonable terms imposed by the court, he can be imprisoned. Not every person convicted of a crime is eligible for probation; the court considers such factors as the severity of the crime, the previous history of the convicted criminal, and the potential for rehabilitation of the convict.

Another alternative form of punishment is community service. Community service is most often used in misdemeanor cases, or occasionally when the criminal has been convicted of a non-violent felony, such as embezzlement. Community service can take a variety of forms, including everything from cleaning up roadside parks to presenting speeches and seminars on the evils of crime. Community service is sometimes granted when the convict has a high level of visibility to the public. For example, celebrities such as rock musicians and movie actors may be given sentences of community service because the court believes that more good can be done for society through the celebrity's service than through his imprisonment.

Although probation is sometimes confused with parole, and while there are similarities, they are not the same. Probation is granted at the time a convict is sentenced, while parole is granted later, after the convict has served a portion of his prison sentence. As with probation, not every convicted criminal is eligible for parole; those convicted of first degree or capital murder (the worst types of killing), and those who are found to be habitual criminals are commonly ineligible for parole.

Another similarity to probation is that parole is usually based on the convict's obeying certain conditions set forth by the parole board. A convict who violates the terms of his parole may be returned to prison to finish the rest of his sentence.

Copyright 1999 ProSe Associates, Inc. All rights reserved.

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