If a judge or jury convicts you of a crime, a judge will then sentence you. Your sentence could include a fine, probation, prison time and several other things. In most cases, once the judge sentences you, your sentence is final. But that is not always the case. So yes, your sentence can in fact change after it starts.
Is sentencing in a criminal case final?
Sort of. In most cases, the sentence the judge chooses during sentencing is the final one. It could change in a couple of ways, but those situations are rare. For example, if the judge made an obvious mistake, you could file a motion to amend the judgment of the sentence. This would allow the judge that sentenced you to fix the mistake. But remember you’re asking the same judge to change their earlier decision. As a result, this kind of motion is usually only a good idea if you believe the mistake is a clear one.
Your sentence could also change if you win on appeal. If you win on appeal, you could get a new trial or have your charges dismissed. But the appeals court could also send the case back to the original judge for re-sentencing. A common example of this is when the judge incorrectly scores sentencing “variables.” These variables are things judges consider when choosing your sentence. If they give you the wrong “score” for these variables, an appeals court might send the case back.
But, other than when a judge grants a motion or you win an appeal, your sentence is likely to remain the same. But there is one more situation where your sentence could change: if the law changes.
For the most part, your sentence depends on the laws that applied at the time the judge sentenced you. This is because new legal principles, even when applied after the fact, usually don’t apply to closed cases. As one Michigan court decision puts it, “at some point, ‘the rights of the parties should be considered ‘frozen’ and a ‘conviction … final.’
So, for cases that have become final, the general rule only applies to future cases. But this general rule has exceptions. To some extent, these exceptions depend on the state you are in.
In Michigan, the first exception is whether the “new rule of law” is a “substantive rule of constitutional law.” In this context, a new rule of law means the new rule created by a court decision. An important rule of constitutional law is a rule that prohibits or punishes certain conduct.
The second exception is whether the new rule is a “watershed rule” of criminal procedure. A watershed rule is one that creates a large risk of inaccurate convictions. It can change our idea of “fairness”.
Can you get an attorney to help change your sentence?
If you feel lost after reading these two exceptions, don’t worry. How to Justice explains both in more detail in other articles. But, in many states, you may be able to get a court-appointed attorney to help. Courts also often decide whether such exceptions apply. This means that people like you don’t have to guess before filing a motion or an appeal.
If a judge has sentenced you in your criminal case, that sentence is likely final. You could win on a motion to amend the judgment of sentence or on appeal, but those situations are rare. If the law changes after your case ends, you might be able to change your sentence as well. But those situations are complex, and you might want an attorney to help.