This blog post is the first post in a series about sentencing hearings in Illinois. I will be writing most of these posts with the general public in mind, however, the legal practitioner unfamiliar with sentencing hearings may find these posts useful too.
When Sentencing Hearings Occur
Sentencing hearings are absent from most criminal cases. This is because the defendant receives his sentence as result of a fully-negotiated plea bargain with the prosecutor’s office. A plea deal happens when a defendant agrees to plead guilty and the prosecutor agrees to the sentence the defendant will receive in exchange for his plea of guilty. A judge must approve the plea agreement, however, the acceptance of the plea by the judge is not a sentencing hearing. A sentencing hearing is something different. At a sentencing hearing, the judge decides the defendant’s sentence after hearing the evidence and arguments of the parties.
So, how does a sentencing hearing come about? One way is when a defendant goes to trial and loses his case. The trial in a criminal case merely results in the defendant being found guilty or not guilty. The sentence the defendant receives after being found guilty is determined by a judge at a later sentencing hearing.
Another way for a sentencing hearing to occur is for a defendant to enter what is called a blind or open plea. This occurs when the defendant pleads guilty without any bargain in exchange from a prosecutor for his guilty plea. This might happen for a number of reasons, but one reason is the defendant thinks the judge may give him a better sentence than he would receive if he accepted the prosecutor’s plea offer.
Sentencing hearings can also occur after the government revokes a defendant’s probation, conditional discharge, or supervision. In these cases, a judge previously sentenced the defendant (to probation/conditional discharge/supervision), but the revocation of the defendant’s sentence triggers a new sentencing hearing and a new (and often harsher) sentence.
The defendant may also arrive at a sentencing hearing with a partially-negotiated plea. When this happens, all terms may be negotiated except for one or two terms that the parties let a judge decide. For example, in a DUI case, the parties may ask a judge to decide whether judicial supervision or probation should be imposed, but all the other aspects of the sentence (such as fines, alcohol counseling, community service work, etc.) have already been agreed to by the parties.