How is the potential punishment for a given offense determined?
Thomas Soldan: The particular punishment for a criminal offense can be set in a bunch of different ways. First, the statute is going to dictate what the minimum and maximum penalties are for every offense in Virginia. For example, a Class 1 misdemeanor is punishable by 12 months in jail, up to a $2,500 fine, or a combination thereof. Likewise, a Class 5 felony is punishable by one to 10 years in prison or, at the court’s discretion, up to 12 months in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500. There are a lot of different punishments that are available according to the statutes.
Virginia is unique in that there are no subclasses to that. There is no Class 1A misdemeanor, for example. Depending on the facts of the case, the judge or the jury has very broad discretion in terms of what punishments they can give. In the majority of cases, as long as they don’t violate the statute by giving an illegal sentence or giving a sentence that is more severe than what the statute authorizes, there are very few sentencing requirements. The judges use their discretion. For a misdemeanor case in general district court, they often use their experience in similar types of cases, the person’s criminal record, and the specific factual circumstances of the case in question to decide what punishment is appropriate. For a felony case where a person has entered a plea or has been found guilty by a judge, there are the Virginia sentencing guidelines. The federal system also has sentencing guidelines, but the Virginia guidelines are different. They are purely discretionary and the court considers them but is not obligated in any way to follow them. It gives the judge an idea of other similar sentences across the state so that a punishment in Fairfax County or Loudoun County is arguably the same as it is in Hampton, Richmond, or Lynchburg. The sentencing guidelines are discretionary, but they give the accused some expectation about what may happen to them given the circumstances of their case and their criminal history.