A Guide for Courtwatch Volunteers
What is a Sentencing Hearing?
A sentencing hearing occurs after a defendant in a criminal case is found guilty (convicted), or pleads guilty to a crime in an open guilty plea (OGP) where the sentence has not been negotiated. The purpose of the sentencing hearing is to determine what the specific punishment (sentence) for an individual will be. (When defendants accept plea bargains or enter negotiated guilty pleas (NGPs) with the District Attorney’s office, sentences are part of the deal, eliminating the need for a sentencing hearing).
What Happens During these Hearings?
During the sentencing hearing, the defendant and the prosecutor each try to convince the judge to impose a certain sentence. Judges weigh several factors in imposing sentences, including the nature of the crime, the defendant’s background and criminal history, the mental health of the defendant and the community impact of the crime.
The defendant typically argues that he deserves a lesser sentence and will usually ask friends and family members to attend and testify about his good qualities in an effort to influence the judge’s decision. Historically, the prosecutor has come into the courtroom alone, asking the judge to impose a tougher sentence. That is where our Courtwatch Volunteers come in.
What is my role as a Courtwatch Volunteer?
As a Courtwatch Volunteer you can stand up for your community by providing direct evidence of the impact that illegal guns have on your community. You may either represent the neighborhood you live in or speak generally as a resident of the County. In court, you may be asked to testify by the Assistant District Attorney (ADA) about the impact that gun crimes have had on you and your community. When we stand together in the courtroom, we can share with the judge our concerns regarding gun violence in our communities. This provides direct evidence of community impact for the judge to weigh in making the sentencing decision.
Can I Participate without Testifying?
YES! Your appearance in court as an observer and witness is critically important, regardless of whether or not you testify.
Appearing in court to observe sentencing hearings sends a message to the judge, the prosecutor, the criminal defense attorneys, and the defendants that the broader community cares about how gun crimes are punished. It makes clear that our communities feel the impact of illegal guns and want to take a stand against them. It tells those who are expecting a slap on the wrist that gun crimes should be taken seriously and that we will work hard to make sure that happens.
Sometimes the judge will not allow us to testify. That doesn’t mean our presence is unimportant. Our presence and purpose will almost always be announced by the prosecutor, and often will be noted by the judge. So, even if we do not testify, it is on the record that the community felt it was important to appear at the sentencing. In addition, even when we simply observe and report about the sentencing hearings — to our friends, families, and neighbors and to the broader public through CeaseFirePA’s website — we are providing a record to the community about how gun crimes are being punished.
Finally, if you cannot attend a particular sentencing hearing, you and fellow community members — either separately or together as part of a community group — can submit letters to the sentencing judge. This is another way to make both your voice and the community heard in the proceeding. We can provide sample letters for you to use as a template.
Things to remember before you go court
Be respectful of the court, the judge and the process: This is a legal proceeding, and even if we disagree with the outcome, we must respect the process. Not every case will result in a sentence that we believe is appropriate, but the more often we bring a community presence into court, the more willing judges will be to accept our testimony and weigh it when calculating sentences.
Dress appropriately: The better you dress, the more respect you show for the judge and the process.
Be prepared to wait: Sentencing hearings almost never begin (or end) at a set time. We may have to sit through other hearings and legal matters before our case is called. Bring a magazine or a book, but do not depend on electronic devices to pass the time as they are technically prohibited from courtrooms.
Get a babysitter: Small children are not allowed in the courtrooms.
Make a commitment: Often, sentencing hearings get delayed or rescheduled. When a hearing is continued, it gets pushed back to a later date so that the defense or prosecution has more time to prepare. Please be prepared to attend on multiple dates, if possible.