What Happens If Sentencing Laws Change After Your Arrest?

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If you've recently been charged with a crime that is the topic of reform efforts in your state -- such as lengthy sentences for the possession or sale of certain drugs -- you may be wondering about what the future may hold. What happens if sentencing laws are changed shortly after you've been jailed under the outdated laws? Can you receive a shortened sentence if you petition the court for an appeal? Is there anything you can do to delay your case to take advantage of reform efforts? And what happens if you're released, but laws later change to prescribe a much harsher punishment for your crime? Read on or talk to a criminal defense attorney to learn more about how changes in sentencing laws can impact your specific case, as well as what you should do to avoid being negatively impacted by such changes.

What happens to old cases when sentencing laws change?

In general, changes in sentencing laws and the definitions of specific crimes don't have much of an impact on older cases. In some cases, this can work as a benefit (for those who were sentenced under a statute that has since become much stricter), while others may find themselves still incarcerated for a crime that only calls for supervised probation for those arrested today. One exception to this is in situations in which false testimony or DNA evidence was used to convict an innocent person -- those exonerated in these situations are nearly instantly released, regardless of the status of later laws.

What are your options if you've been sentenced under an outdated law?

If the law was changed shortly after your sentencing, you still have a few options. First, you can appeal the case and argue that your sentencing should fall under later laws due to the legislature's clear intent to minimize the punishment for the crime you committed. In some cases, the appellate court may send your case back to the trial court to be retried under the new laws.

You may also be able to petition the court to expunge or seal your criminal record. This can remove all traces of your crime from public records (even official background checks) and help improve your employment prospects. Some states have recently enacted expungement laws that will allow you to remove criminal records if you've been acquitted or if charges were dismissed, while others allow those with even misdemeanor or non-violent felony convictions to have these records removed from the view of employers and other trial courts.

What happens if the laws become more strict?

If you've been released on probation and laws have since changed to substantially increase the punishment for your initial crime, this won't directly impact your case. However, it's something to keep in mind during your probationary period. Depending upon the terms of probation, even something as minor as a speeding ticket could be enough to revoke it -- and once it has been revoked, you'll be subject to the terms of your initial sentence, generally served in full.

If you're later arrested for the same crime you initially committed, you'll be subject to the stricter penalties for your later crime -- and you may also be subject to an even lengthier sentence under "enhancement" laws. These laws provide for stricter penalties for crimes that are committed after a certain number of prior convictions. So even if you received a relatively mild sentence for your initial crimes, these convictions could be enough to "enhance" your current sentence to beyond the statutory maximum. It's worthwhile to investigate record sealing or expungement, if available, to ensure that these convictions don't later result in a harsher criminal sentence.