The reality of our criminal justice system is that most people who face criminal charges are going to end up being sentenced by a judge. Dismissals and not guilty verdicts are rare. There is an art and science to representing a client at a sentencing hearing. The science part is straightforward – make sure you know the maximum and any mandatory minimum sentences and understand the sentencing range the judge is likely to impose.
The art of sentencing comes in presenting mitigation. Mitigation can include facts and circumstances that make a person less culpable for their conduct and therefore less deserving of punishment. It is important to know what is in a client’s background that has mitigating value – and that can be both positive things (clean record, stellar job history, educational background, etc.), but it can also include things that have negatively impacted a person (childhood abuse, a history of substance abuse, background of poverty, limited educational opportunities, etc.).
An important component to effectively representing a person at the sentencing phase of a case is to know your judge. As a lawyer, you must know what mitigating facts are likely to resonate with the judge. Then, you creatively find a way to effectively present those mitigating facts to the judge. Just as important as knowing what to highlight to the judge, you have to know what facts to leave out. Perhaps something that would have tremendous mitigating value with one judge would work against the client with another judge.
Experienced counsel can help to create a strategy for effectively representing a client at the sentencing phase of a case. Understanding the bounds of the law is just one component. Knowing the judge and what is likely to positively influence the judge to impose a less severe sentence is just as important.