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Understanding Utah courts: What happens after sentencing?

By Cara MacDonald, | Posted - Mar. 6, 2019 at 7:00 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Perhaps the least acknowledged side of the criminal process as depicted in TV shows and/or movies is what happens after the defendant is sentenced but before they end up serving out their punishment.

In "Holes," for example, Stanley is convicted and immediately after the gavel strikes, he is pictured on a bus headed fast toward his punishment. A decision being made does not necessarily mean the newly convicted individual will be headed straight to a prison sentence. Here’s what actually happens once a defendant receives their verdict.

In criminal cases, a verdict needs to be unanimous. According to Utah Courts, the judge or jury can reach one possible verdict out of four options:

  • Guilty: There is no reasonable doubt that the defendant committed each element of the offense.
  • Not guilty: There is reasonable doubt that the offense was committed by the defendant.
  • Not guilty by reason of insanity: The defendant couldn’t have formed the intent to commit the offense because of a mental illness or defect clouding their decisions.
  • Guilty and mentally ill: The defendant had a mental illness but still maintained the intent to commit the offense.
“If guilt is asserted, then comes the sentencing phase,” said Geoff Fattah, communications director for the Utah State Courts. “A lot of times, the judge will order a presentence report looking into the defendant’s background.”

The judge can also receive letters from the victims, the defendant and the defendant’s family.

Chad Grunander, deputy Utah County attorney, added that the report usually takes six weeks or so before a recommended sentence is given. Remember in "Orange is the New Black," when Piper has a lull in activity between when she received her sentence to a year and a half in federal prison and when she actually has to go? This period of time shown would have been during her sentencing phase.

The judge is required to hold a sentencing hearing between two and 45 days after the initial conviction, but the defendant can choose to waive that time frame and be sentenced the same day if they prefer.

Sentencing will then be imposed during a hearing. In Utah, according to Fattah, types of felony offenses will fall into one of four categories:

  • Capital Felony: Life in prison, life in prison without parole, or death.
  • First degree felonies: Carry a maximum penalty of 5 years-life in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
  • Second-degree felonies: Involve 1-15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
  • Third-degree felonies: Warrant 0-5 years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
Felonies are generally only major crimes. Lower level crimes that can be punished with jail terms or fines are known as misdemeanors. According to Utah Courts, the types of misdemeanors in Utah include:

  • Class A: Up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
  • Class B: Up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1000 or community service.
  • Class C: Up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $750 or community service.
Even less extreme than misdemeanors, infractions are minor offenses like city traffic violations or disorderly conduct. These crimes are punishable with up to $750 in fines or community service.

Sentences may include a jail or prison term, probation, fines, restitution, treatment, and any other potential action to help rehabilitate or punish the defendant for their crimes, according to Utah Courts. In other words, a punishment might involve a federal prison, a rehabilitation camp, or even a mental hospital.

If the offender was exceptionally cooperative with law enforcement, is a good candidate for treatment, or has developmental disabilities, then their punishment may be made less severe.

Grunander added that, generally, those convicted for crimes will then either immediately be sent to prison or placed in a jail or house arrest for a few days. Most jails transport people in their custody to federal prisons once or twice per week, so some individuals may need to spend a couple of days in jail first.

Fattah added that how much of that time will actually be served by the defendant is handled by the Utah Board of Pardons, who may consider their behavior while they’re incarcerated. If the defendant can demonstrate that they’re trying to rebuild their lives in a better way, the board of pardons may put them on parole sooner.

Recall again "Orange is the New Black," where Piper ends up having extra time tacked onto her prison sentence after she intentionally inflicted injury on another inmate. In the same way, that good behavior may reduce a sentence, poor behavior may increase it.

While some individuals may be able to leave prison early, Fattah cautioned that “if they violate the terms of their parole, they run the risk of coming back on a probation violation. The Board of Pardons has the option to (then) keep them there for the rest of their sentence.”

Any criminal action will land them back in prison to serve out their full sentence.

Once sentencing is complete, if the defendant is not happy with the outcome and believes that some aspect of the trial violated legal precedent, the individual can take the matter to an appeals court.

“There’s a time table that is about a 30-day window after the sentence where the defendant has to file a notice of appeal,” Grunander explained.

Once the appeal is filed, it can take months or even years for the case to be heard, and the defendant will generally spend that time in prison.

Cara MacDonald

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