What is a Sentencing Hearing?

A sentencing hearing is a separate proceeding from the traditionally known courtroom trial (where an individual is deemed guilty and convicted of a crime) and may be better understood as the punishment portion of the trial process.

What happens at a sentencing hearing?

In Virginia, sentencing hearings tend to follow the same specific process.  First, the Commonwealth is permitted to have the victim, or the victim’s family, testify regarding the impact of the crime committed upon the victim; the Victim’s Impact Statement.  Additionally, the Commonwealth may call other witnesses to testify regarding other issues that may impact sentencing, such as restitution.  Once the Commonwealth has called its witnesses, the Defense has the opportunity to do the same.  Sometimes the Defendant may wish to testify, or the Defendant’s family or friends may be called to testify on the Defendant’s behalf regarding his character, mental condition, background, etc.  The attorney will be able to determine what witnesses, if any, are beneficial to mitigating the Defendant’s sentence.

Next, the Commonwealth will be permitted to present documentary evidence such as the Defendant’s criminal record, photographs of any injuries or property damage, medical bills, etc. to establish a foundation for the Defendant’s restitution.  Again, the Defense is then permitted to introduce any documentary evidence that would mitigate the Defendant’s sentence, which may include any receipts of previously paid restitution, an apology letter to the victim, and reports showing treatment programs the Defendant is willing to attend or has attended.

If there is a felony conviction at issue, after the Commonwealth and the Defense have presented their witnesses and documentary evidence to the court, the Commonwealth will then be permitted to present the Virginia Sentencing Guidelines and a Pre-Sentence Report.

Finally, after all the evidence is submitted to the court, each side will have the opportunity to present their arguments as to what should or should not be Defendant’s final sentence.  After the arguments, the court will make its final ruling.

What are the Virginia Sentencing Guidelines?

In order to create more transparency in sentencing, Virginia established guidelines for calculating suggested sentencing ranges for the court to consider when determining each defendant’s sentence.  The guidelines account for factors such as past criminal history, use of a weapon during the commission of the offense, etc.  It is important to keep in mind that the guidelines are merely suggestions as to how the court should sentence the Defendant, but the court may, in its discretion, choose not to follow the it.

What is a Pre-Sentence Report?

A Pre-Sentence Report is a comprehensive review of each defendant that contains a criminal, family and educational history, the Defendant’s mental/physical/emotional condition(s), economic situation, financial status, and an in-depth narration of the current offense.  This report is typically completed by probation officer and is used by the court to render an appropriate sentence.