Cumulative Sentence

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A cumulative sentence, or consecutive sentence, is one which does not begin to run until the expiration of a prior sentence. Unlike concurrent sentences, which are served simultaneously, cumulative sentences follow one another and adds (as opposed to combine) to the duration of one's sentence.

Courts typically have broad discretion in deciding whether or not sentences will be served cumulatively or concurrently. Courts generally determine whether a sentence will be cumulative in pursuant to the sentencing goals of retribution and deterrence. Under the federal scheme, 18 U.S.C. Section 3584 governs multiple sentences. Section 3553 codifies the factors courts should consider, including the seriousness of the offense and the need for deterrence.

Jurisdictions also have their own schemes for deciding between concurrent and cumulative sentences. For example, in Michigan, cumulative sentences are only imposed if authorized by statute. In California, cumulative sentences are governed by the California Penal Code Section 669. Under the California Rules of Court Rule 4.425, a court deciding to impose a cumulative sentence should consider the facts of the crime, such as whether the crimes were independent of each other. While Double Jeopardy prevents a defendant from being punished more than once for the same offense, California has held that a defendant can still be liable for cumulative sentences arising from the same crime if the crime produced multiple victims. 

Cumulative sentences are also different from sentencing enhancements. The former involves the structure of sentences pursuant to the policy goals while the latter focuses on whether additional punishments are warranted. Though enhancements also lead to longer sentences, they focus on certain aspects of a crime that are not always present. For example, where a defendant is charged with reckless driving, his or her sentence may be enhanced if it caused injury to a victim.

[Last updated in June of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]