Ask Judge Smith – Expectations and sentencing

Q. As a judge, what should courts expect from people, and how do you go about deciding criminal sentences?

A. Courts expect people to be honest, well-behaved, and on time. Courts also expect people to give their best efforts to be responsible for themselves and their actions. This includes fulfilling the promises they make.

I use time in court to explain why we are gathered and what is expected from everyone. I also encourage questions and take time to answer them.

When criminal defendants are unable to participate due to mental health or substance abuse issues, I order evaluations and try to help them regain their footing.

Lawyers who appear in my courtroom should be candid, prepared, and reasonable.

They should be polite and on time. Fortunately, we are blessed with many courteous and talented local lawyers. Now, let’s focus on criminal sentencing.

The five traditional objectives of sentencing are punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and restitution.

Punishment is self-explanatory. The goal of deterrence is to discourage defendants and others from committing future crimes. Incapacitation means defendants can’t commit additional crimes in the community while they are locked up. Rehabilitation is the process of restoring someone to a useful and constructive place in society. Restitution means defendants must right the wrongs they directly caused by their crimes by making their victims as whole as possible.

As your county judge, I sentence defendants for misdemeanors.

Many of the sentences I impose are plea agreements—this means the prosecutor, defense attorney, and defendant have already signed off on the terms. I don’t participate in their negotiations, and my role is to either accept or reject their agreement. In contrast, I alone decide the terms of sentences when juries return guilty verdicts at trial, defendants enter open pleas, or defendants violate their probation. 

Sentencing should be fair, merciful, and just. It’s also important for the sentences of similar defendants to be consistent and proportionate.

Sentencing is not a power trip. I find it to be incredibly humbling because people’s liberty and reputations are at stake. It’s important for me to prepare and be deliberative, not emotional. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and don’t adjudicate them guilty or impose jail time unless they’ve earned it and deserve it. That said, don’t take me or any other judge lightly. Sooner or later, criminal misbehavior has consequences that leave indelible marks.

County judges genuinely care about people and their communities. We strive to be fair, to help people resolve their differences, and to prevent them from progressing from misdemeanors to felonies.

The Honorable J. Layne Smith is a Circuit Judge, bestselling author, and public speaker.


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