Influences on Criminal Sentencing Outcomes in New Jersey


What Factors Help to Determine Your Sentence for a Crime in NJ

When you are convicted of a crime in New Jersey, the judge typically imposes a sentence. This sentence can include prison or jail time, probation, fines, community service, and other punishments. When it comes to sentencing a defendant to prison or jail, the judge is usually limited to a sentencing range that is based on the grading and degree of the charge. For example, a defendant convicted of a second degree indictable offense in NJ is subject to a sentence of 5-10 years in prison. However, judges often have a significant amount of discretion when determining where the sentence falls within that range, and even if there’s a reason to deviate from the typical sentencing range in a given criminal case.

When the judge in a criminal case is determining the length of sentence, they will consider a number of factors that can be either good or bad for the defendant. These factors, known as “aggravating factors” and “mitigating factors,” are listed in N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1 of the New Jersey criminal code. Depending on how heavily these factors are weighed in your case, it’s possible that your sentence could be longer or shorter. The rationale behind this is that by considering both positive and negative factors, the judge can ensure that sentencing is fair to the defendant in that particular case.

Aggravating Factors for Sentencing: What Counts Against You

Some of the aggravating factors that the judge will consider when deciding on a sentence length include the following:

  • Nature and circumstances of the offense. The context of the criminal offense will go a long way toward determining the severity of the sentence handed down by the judge. The statute states that the judge shall consider whether the defendant’s actions were especially cruel or evil. For example, in an aggravated assault case, the defendant may be subject to a harsher punishment if the victim suffered severe injuries. Similarly, in a DUI case, the defendant could face a harsher punishment if their blood alcohol concentration was significantly higher than the legal limit.
  • Degree of harm suffered by the victim. If the defendant knew that the victim was elderly, extremely young, or sick, and therefore especially vulnerable, then the judge may impose a longer sentence. This can also happen if the defendant acted recklessly and probably should have realized that the victim would not be able to defend themselves.
  • Risk of committing another crime in the future. When determining the likelihood that the defendant might commit another criminal offense later if not deterred in the present, the judge should consider not just the defendant’s track record, but also whether the defendant has taken accountability for the crime, whether the defendant failed to show up for the sentencing hearing, and whether the defendant has made any attempt to rehabilitate themselves while awaiting resolution of the case.
  • Defendant violated public trust. If the defendant committed their crime while occupying a position of trust or confidence, this should be weighed by the judge when determining the length of any sentence.
  • Involvement in organized crime. When there is proof that the defendant is involved in racketeering or similar illegal activity, the judge may impose a longer sentence. This is true even if the crime for which the defendant has been charged and convicted has no relationship to their membership in a criminal syndicate.
  • Prior criminal record. If the defendant has previous convictions on their record for serious, felony-level offenses, this may weigh heavily when the judge imposes sentence. This includes juvenile crimes and traffic offenses, and it may include convictions for drunk driving in certain instances.
  • Paid to commit the crime. If the defendant committed the crime in exchange for money or some other form of payment, that may be considered an aggravating factor for the purposes of sentencing.
  • Crime against police. If the defendant committed their crime against a police officer, the judge may impose a longer sentence.
  • Need for deterrence. The statute is quite broad when it comes to this aggravating factor. Basically, the judge can issue a longer sentence if doing so is in the public’s best interest and will deter others from committing similar crimes. Here, the judge may consider a number of things, such as the grading and degree of the crime, the seriousness of the crime, the defendant’s expressions of regret for having committed the crime, and the defendant’s risk of staying on the wrong path and continuing to commit crimes in the future.
  • Fine won’t constitute punishment. If the judge finds that a fine or other monetary penalty would simply be perceived by the defendant as “a cost of doing business,” the judge may impose a harsher jail or prison sentence.
  • Victim was disabled or elderly. If the defendant knew, or should have known, that the victim was disabled or elderly, then the judge may sentence the defendant to a longer term of imprisonment.
  • Stolen car used during crime. If the defendant stole a car and then used it while committing the crime, then this may be considered an aggravating factor for sentencing.
  • Domestic violence. If the defendant’s crime involved an act of domestic violence, and a minor child was present to witness the crime, then the judge may impose a longer sentence.

Mitigating Factors for Sentencing: What Weighs in Your Favor

Some of the mitigating factors that a judge may consider when imposing sentence in a criminal case include the following:

  • Defendant did not cause “serious” harm. The judge may decide to reduce the length of the sentence if the defendant did not actually cause, or threaten to cause, “serious harm” to any victims. However, NJ courts have held that this mitigating factor is inapplicable to a defendant who is convicted of drug distribution.
  • Defendant was provoked. If the victim provoked the defendant into acting, then this may be a mitigating factor at sentencing. For example, the defendant might have committed an aggravated assault in response to incitement by the victim.
  • Victim abused the defendant. If the victim has a history of physical, sexual, and/or psychological abuse against the defendant, then this may be a mitigating factor at sentencing for a crime committed by the defendant against the victim.
  • Defendant compensated the victim. If the defendant already compensated the victim of their crime, then the judge may take that into consideration when imposing any sentence. However, this mitigating factor is typically limited to cases in which the court orders the defendant to pay restitution.
  • Defendant does not have a criminal record. If this was the defendant’s first offense and they do not have a prior criminal record involving arrest or conviction, this factor may have some limited weight on the judge’s determination of sentence.
  • Defendant is not likely to commit another crime. The judge may consider whether the defendant’s good character indicates that the defendant is unlikely to commit another crime in the future.
  • Probation will be sufficient. If the defendant is likely to respond favorably to a sentence that does not involve incarceration, then the judge may sentence the defendant to probation instead of sentencing the defendant to prison or jail.
  • Imprisonment would be unreasonably difficult. If imprisoning the defendant would be overly harsh to the defendant or to children who depend on the defendant, then the judge may decide against sentencing the defendant to jail or prison. For example, the defendant might be the only parent to minor children who need him or her for financial support. Additionally, if the defendant has a serious illness or medical condition that would make it difficult for them to maintain their health in prison, the judge may decide against imprisonment.
  • Defendant cooperated with authorities. If the defendant cooperated with law enforcement during the investigation, the judge may take this into account when determining the sentence. However, NJ courts have held that this should go beyond merely confessing to the crime while failing to identify other individuals who participated in the crime.

How Aggravating and Mitigating Factors Affect the Sentencing Decision

While the sentencing judge has flexibility to reduce or increase a sentence based on the presence of certain factors, there are still guidelines that limit the judge at sentencing. For instance, any sentence imposed must be relative to the number and relevance of mitigating and aggravating factors. Presumably, if there are a lot of mitigating factors, then the sentence should fall on the lower end of the spectrum; if there are a lot of aggravating factors, then the sentence should fall on the higher end of the spectrum. If the factors are equally weighted on both sides, then a sentence in the middle of the sentencing range may be most appropriate.

Additionally, the sentencing court must explain clearly why the aggravating or mitigating factors presented at the sentencing hearing were either accepted or rejected. If the judge decides that a certain aggravating or mitigating factor is especially important, then they must explain their rationale. Beyond that, the court is limited to using the factors that are specifically mentioned in the NJ criminal code’s sentencing guidelines when arriving at the sentence for a particular defendant convicted of a crime.

A Criminal Defense Lawyer can Assist You Before and During Sentencing

If you find yourself facing criminal charges in Middlesex County or elsewhere in New Jersey, the assistance of a highly competent criminal defense attorney can go a long way toward resolving your case in the best manner possible, whether it be litigating your case to avoid a conviction and inevitable sentencing, or arguing persuasively should your case end up in the sentencing phase. To discuss the elements of your legal matter when charged with a crime, factors that influence the sentence you may receive if you are ultimately convicted, and what the defense team at our law office can do to assist you with the process, call (732) 659-9600 or send us a message for a free consultation now.

With more than a decade of experience defending clients against criminal charges, founding partner William A. Proetta has successfully handled and tried thousands of cases, from DWI to murder. As a New Jersey native, he has focused his career on helping people in the area where he grew up, serving Middlesex, Ocean, Hudson, and Union counties.