“The court sentences you to a minimum of 25 years and a maximum of 75 years in prison!”
For a person who’s been convicted of a crime, being sentenced can seem like a terrifying and rather arbitrary process. As if the judge simply picks a large number of years because they don’t like you and want to make your future as miserable as possible. But believe it or not, it doesn’t work that way in the Michigan court system.
A Michigan judge does have some discretion when choosing a sentence. But they aren’t allowed to simply pick whatever sentence they think works best, or whatever number of years suits their fancy. Not without explaining their choices. Since very few judges like to have their decisions questioned or appealed, most of them stay within the state sentencing guidelines. What does this mean? Well, let’s break it down…
What are ‘state sentencing guidelines’?
In Michigan there are sentencing guidelines for felony convictions that act as advisory suggestions for judges to follow when passing sentence on people convicted of felony crimes. These guidelines were first released by the Michigan Supreme Court in 1984, and updated again more than once. So what do the advisory sentencing guidelines look like?
Here’s an example: according to Michigan sentencing guidelines, Production of Methamphetamines is punishable by up to twenty years in prison. Which means that the law in Michigan allows no more than 20 years in total as a sentence for this crime. However, the judge has discretion to decide the minimum sentence for the felony. A judge could decide on a minimum sentence of 160 months up to a maximum of 240 months in prison. So the maximum sentence is determined by our Michigan criminal law. The minimum sentence is set by the judge using the Michigan Sentencing Guidelines.
What happens if a Judge departs from the sentencing guidelines?
If a judge hands down a sentence that departs from the guideline range for those specific charges, without a good explanation, the sentence is subject to a ‘reasonableness review’. The appellate court determines how reasonable and proportionate the sentence was, by figuring out whether it violates ‘the principle of proportionality”. Any upward or downward departure in the felony sentencing must be fully explained and justified by the judge, on the record.
It sounds complex, but all that means is whether or not the sentence is proportional to the seriousness of the crime. In other words, if a Judge hands down a life sentence to someone convicted of First Degree Retail Fraud (which sentencing guidelines say is a 5 year felony), they’ll probably have a lot of explaining to do. First Degree Retail Fraud is a felony, but the sentencing guidelines suggest no more than five years in prison. So a judge who sentences a shoplifter to a lifetime behind bars has to explain exactly why they made that choice. The reviewing court then has to determine if the judge made the right decision.
There are some exceptions to the rules
Sentences can be “enhanced” for a number of reasons. For example, having one prior felony conviction on your criminal record will raise the maximum penalty. Having two felony convictions raises the maximum sentence even more. Three or more prior felonies on the defendant’s criminal record sends the sentencing numbers through the roof. Also, prior felonies are not the only way that sentences get ‘enhanced”. .. but more on that another time.
How often do judges deviate from sentencing guidelines in Michigan?
It certainly isn’t a daily event, but it does happen. Sometimes judges give a harsher sentence because they believe the defendant deserves it. Sometimes they give a more lenient sentence because they believe the case warrants it. Some judges are sticklers for adhering to the guidelines, while others are known for regularly blazing their own trail.
An important point to remember is this: The sentencing guidelines do not apply to misdemeanor convictions in our state. Which is why this discussion has been about felony convictions in Michigan.
If you’re concerned about what the judge will do in your case, hire an experienced defense attorney. Your lawyer, if they’ve handled many cases here in Michigan, will be familiar with the different judges and how they tend to handle cases. Discuss your concerns with your attorney, and they can help to prepare you for what’s ahead.
Do you need help from an experienced criminal defense attorney?
As attorneys who’ve been defending clients around the lower peninsula of Michigan for decades, we’ve appeared in the courtrooms of so many different Judges. We know how they operate, and whether or not they usually stay within guidelines, or tend to deviate. The trusted criminal defense attorneys at The Kronzek Firm can help you prepare for whatever your case involves. Call us at 866 766 5245, night or day. The right attorney is critical to the outcome of your case.