successive sentences

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When a criminal defendant gets convicted of a crime, the judge will impose a sentence appropriate for the conduct. If the defendant gets convicted on multiple charges, they will face multiple sentences. The sentences can be applied either concurrently or successively. A concurrent sentence is when the defendant serves time for both charges at once. A successive sentence is when the defendant serves time for both charges, one after the other.

For example, if a defendant gets charged for crime X, punishable by 10 years imprisonment, and crime Y, punishable by 5 years imprisonment, a concurrent sentence means that the 5 years for crime Y would be served within the 10 years for time X. Thus, the defendant would only serve 10 years total because the 5 years would run concurrently to the 10. However, if the judge imposed the sentences successively, the defendant would have to serve 10 years for crime X, finish that sentence, and then serve 5 years for crime Y, therefore making the sentence 15 years total.

In Oregon v. Ice, the Supreme Court held that states could give judges the discretion to decide whether a convicted defendant will serve a concurrent or successive sentence. Even so, the judge has no discretion if the criminal statute at hand mandates that the sentence for the crime at issue must be served concurrently—states include these mandates in certain criminal legislation, but it varies by state and by crime.

A few years after the Supreme Court decision in Oregon v. Ice, Congress passe18 U.S. Code § 3584, which provides judges with the discretion to decide whether the sentences will run consecutively or successively. The statute provides a list of factors judges should consider when determining what sentence to give defendants. It also states that the default rule calls for the imposition of concurrent sentences unless mandated otherwise by statute, or unless the judge finds that a successive sentence would lead to the best outcome in the case at hand. 

An example of a crime mandating a successive sentence is attempt. If a person is convicted of attempting to commit a crime and actually committing it, the judge will be forced to impose a successive sentence. Thus, someone who has been sentenced for attempted murder and murder must serve a successive sentence—meaning they must serve their two sentences one at a time.  

Successive sentences can also be called consecutive or cumulative sentences.

[Last updated in September of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]