A consecutive sentence is a prison sentence that must be served independently of any other sentences; a convict with two consecutive sentences, for example, must serve one and then the other. This contrasts with a concurrent sentence, allowing prisoners to serve multiple sentences at once and get out earlier. Consecutive sentences are usually considered in very serious crimes where a judge wants to make sure a prisoner stays behind bars for an extended period of time by serving each sentence on its own.
The consecutive sentence becomes an option when a case involves multiple counts; a defendant might be accused of rape, battery, robbery, and murder, for example. The jury can determine to convict or acquit on each count separately, and each conviction carries a separate sentence. If a prisoner ends up with three sentences, one for 10 years, another for seven, and another for three, the judge can decide if they should be served consecutively or concurrently.
In this example, the prisoner serving consecutive sentences would face 20 years in prison. With concurrent sentences, the maximum length of time spent in prison is that of the longest sentence, 10 years in this case. Whether prisoners serve consecutive or concurrent sentences, they are usually eligible for parole on the basis of good behavior and may get out earlier than anticipated. A judge can specifically request no possibility of parole, or hand down a sentence like three consecutive life sentences, effectively ensuring that the prisoner will stay in jail for life.
In cases involving multiple crimes, especially violent crimes or those particularly offensive to society, a consecutive sentence sends a clear message. The convict will receive a punishment society may feel is appropriate to the crime, while people considering similar crimes might think again, determining that the risk is too high. Prisoners facing a consecutive sentence know that even if they get time off for good behavior, they can still face a long prison stay.
After prisoners go to prison, they have the right to appeal if they feel cases were not tried fairly or appropriately. In addition to seeking parole for good behavior, prisoners can also pursue compassionate release if they become critically ill while in prison. Family members may also lobby for clemency from a head of government, asking a party like a state governor to issue a pardon and allow the prisoner to have an early release from a consecutive sentence.