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Sentencing Hearing Primer in Minnesota

What a defendant needs to know for the conclusion of court proceedings

In the American judicial process, the major events are broken into different meetings with prosecutors, law enforcement or agents of the state and hearings before a judge or magistrate. If someone who has been accused of a crime enters a guilty plea at one of these meetings or hearings or is found guilty by a jury or judge at the conclusion of a trial and ajudication, a sentencing hearing will be scheduled. Here’s what can be expected to occur at one.

The purpose of a sentencing hearing is to determine the adequate consequences for breaking the law. Judges and magistrates figure out the best course of punishment for a wrongdoing, often leading to a prison sentenace or county jail. They use the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines to help inform their decision. These guidelines take into account the past criminal history score, including misdemeanors and prior felony convictions, of a defendant and all of the circumstances of the current offense. These facts are put into a formula that gives a range of sentencing options.

Before the sentencing hearing, there is often a pre-sentence investigation. A meeting will be set up with a probation officer (PO) of the court and the defendant. The interview will consist of questions asked by the PO to determine acceptance of responsibility, the likelihood of reoffending, and the circumstances that caused the crime to be committed. In these interviews, the best advice is, to be honest, and accept responsibility for the crime. If you don’t, the sentence may be harsher or lead to sentencing enhancement. The judges often follow the recommendations that result from these investigations.

In most cases, a defense attorney will file a sentencing brief demanding and showing why the presiding authority should sentence on the low end of the guidelines or why they should consider a downward dispositional departure from the recommended sentencing. The reasons for downward departures are a multi-factor balancing test. In order for the court to depart from the guidelines, compelling reasons must be shown. When looking at a dispositional departure, the court should focus on the defendant as an individual and whether the presumptive sentence would be best for them and society.

A plea agreement often comes with a sentencing agreement. This can include many diversion programs that are mostly available to first-time offenders. If an agreement has not been reached before the sentencing hearing, then arguments will be heard from both sides with recommendations given by the probation officer, prosecutor, and the defendant’s attorney.

Arguments at the sentencing hearing should center around why one consequence is better than another. The things that the court considers are the defendant’s personal background, individual characteristics, employment history and nature and circumstance of the current offense, acceptance of responsibility, whether the defendant will pose a low likelihood of reoffending, and the financial circumstances of the defendant.

After the close of arguments, the judge or magistrate will impose the sentence. They will outline any probational terms and requirements, and, if necessary, can send the defendant to the department of corrections for a prison term. A defendant’s affairs should be in order when they come to sentencing. The court may be asked to impose a turn-in date, where the defendant can report to the jail at a later time. If the court has any misgivings about a defendant’s ability to report on time due to their history or a lack of taking responsibility, this will not be granted.

Sentencing hearings are often quick—15 minutes in length. Courts are busy and many defendants are sentenced on the same date and time. Make sure that you are represented by an experienced and reputable attorney, and that they have time to prepare a sentencing brief on your behalf, and can represent you to the fullest at your hearing.

For more information on this area of law, see our overview of criminal defense.

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