Criminal sentencing can be a confusing issue for journalists who are not well versed in court and corrections practices. A sentence can be straightforward, such as a set number of years, or it can be expressed as a time range that make it difficult to explain how long a defendant is likely to serve in custody. Terms that have become common in recent decades include mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes” penalties, and sentencing guidelines. Their application differs from state to state, as do probation and parole practices. Before covering criminal cases, journalists are well advised to consult with experts in their jurisdictions about how the sentencing system works. Prosecutors often announce charges against suspects that they say could result in a very long prison term, but because of plea bargaining or weaknesses in the case, almost never is the maximum conceivable sentence imposed. Reporters should also be aware of the variety of sentencing possibilities and focus not only on time behind bars but also on such elements as fines, restitution to victims, and required treatment or other conditions of probation.

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