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The length of a prison sentence depends on many factors

In California, as in many jurisdictions, the penalty for second-degree murder is governed by a statute that dictates a minimum and maximum prison sentence. Under the statute, the minimum sentence for second-degree murder is 15 years with a maximum term of life. However, the minimum sentence can increase or decrease in the presence of other factors.

If there are aggravating factors present, the statute mandates that a defendant serve a minimum of 25 years or, alternatively, life without the possibility of parole. Aggravating factors are circumstances around the murder and/or circumstances within a defendant's background that make the defendant's conduct worse. Aggravating factors can include many things including particularly heinous crimes, hate crimes or previous criminal convictions. The prosecution must present evidence of these aggravating factors, and the judge or jury must find them to be true before the statutory penalty may be increased.

The statute also permits a reduction to the minimum sentence if there are mitigating factors. Most mitigating factors focus on the defendant's mental state or actual role in the crime. Under the statute, a smaller sentence may be imposed for reasons such as the defendant's age, the defendant's role in the commission of the crime and the defendant's mental state. It is up to the defendant to show that such factors exist.

The sentencing phase of a criminal trial is as important as the trial itself. During the sentencing phase, a criminal law attorney could help defendants avoid a longer prison sentence or reduce a minimum sentence by showing either the absence of aggravating factors or the presence of mitigating factors.

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