Once a trial is concluded, and a defendant has been found guilty either by a guilty plea or through conviction by a jury, the judge will pass sentence.  This may happen immediately, or it may happen weeks or months later.

The victim of a crime has a right to be present and speak during the sentencing. The judge may order a “presentence investigation” (PSI) to gather more information about the defendant’s background, family, record, and so on, to help decide the sentence the judge will impose.  State probation and parole agents conduct PSI’s, and their report is confidential.  You have no right as a reporter to see it.

Since 2000, Wisconsin judges follow sentencing guidelines established by the state’s so-called truth-in-sentencing laws.  The state court system’s website can clarify this and you can click through the site to find what you’re looking for.

The old idea of “time off for good behavior” doesn’t apply any more.   There’s a lively debate in journalism about how to report sentence lengths.  If the judge sentences Mr. Jones to ten years, the judge may decide that the defendant should spend four years of the ten in prison, and six years in “extended supervision” which may involve many conditions like electronic monitoring, absolute sobriety, counseling, community service, and so on.  Now, if a defendant acts up in prison, he or she will have to spend more time in confinement before being released to the extended supervision portion of the sentence.

Another important aspect of sentencing in cases where there is a victim is that the judge must also decide if the defendant has to pay restitution to the victim for losses caused by the crime.  The judge may also order the defendant to write a letter of apology.

The judge must also decide if the defendant will be eligible for Huber privileges. Wisconsin’s Huber Law, which was the country’s first work release law, was written by Henry Huber, a UW grad who had a law practice in Stoughton and was elected to the state legislature, where he wrote the 1913 law that allowed prisoners to leave their cell during the day to work.  Now, “Huber Law” prisoners may be given time away from their facility to go to school, get job training, take care of children and family matters, and many other things.  With electronic monitoring, a sentence could be served entirely at home.

The vast majority of people who are in prison are there for felony offenses such as burglary, forgery, theft of more than ten thousand dollars, robbery, armed robbery,  1st and 2nd degree sexual assault, 1st and 2nd degree sexual assault of a child, or possession of cocaine or marijuana with intent to deliver.

Another very important tool for reporters is the state court system’s “C-CAP” website.  CCAP stands for Consolidated Court Automation Programs.  You can find information on someone’s prior offenses, if any; traffic violations; civil court actions; and many other areas like probate cases and even divorces.  Be sure to read the warning on the home page about how information on the CCAP site is to be used, and the warning about the accuracy of information presented on the CCAP site.

The State Bar of Wisconsin’s website, while designed for use by practicing attorneys, has plenty of information which can be accessed by the public and is very helpful to reporters looking for general information about sentencing.