Can You Appeal A Prison Sentence?

By Prison Insight Staff

Updated: May 28, 2019

I can’t put into words what it feels like to hear a judge sentence you to time in prison. For me, it was an out of body experience, like I was watching a scene from a movie. It doesn’t feel real. I can’t think of anything worse than having your freedom taken away. To know that our society has given people the power to do that─with surprisingly little oversight─makes my stomach turn.

Of course, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t put people in prison who are a danger to society, and have no doubt committed a violent crime. But, putting people, like me, behind bars─a first time nonviolent drug offender─is costing our society in ways most people don’t realize.

Once a judge sentences you to the custody of the Department of Corrections or the Bureau of Prisons, reversing that decision can take years if not decades, and it is extremely difficult to do. However, I, like many other inmates, immediately began the appeal process the moment I hit the prison yard. The question for this blog post is: can you appeal a prison sentence?

This blog post will cover:

  • What happens if you appeal a prison sentence?
  • What is the process of appealing a prison sentence?
  • What are the possible outcomes of appealing a prison sentence?

What happens if you appeal a prison sentence?

I should start off by saying that I am not a lawyer, and I am simply speaking from experience. If you have a loved one who is incarcerated and wanting to appeal their sentence, please consult a lawyer or have them get to the law library at their prison to get help with the appeal process. The law requires that every prisoner has access to a law library so they can find resources to help them do things like file an appeal, file bankruptcy, or grant someone power of attorney.

There are time restrictions on appeals, and the process is different for people who are incarcerated on state charges as opposed to federal. There is also a difference for inmates who plead guilty to the charges against them and those who were convicted by a jury or judge.

Every inmate has the automatic right to an appeal if they have been convicted, but they have to start the process on their own. Appeals are not automatic. To trigger your right to an appeal, an attorney must file the notice of appeal and an appellate brief, in which they argue your reasons for appeal. You do have the option of filing an appeal, “pro se,” which is representing yourself without an attorney, but it is not recommended.

There are public defenders in the appellate process that will represent you, so inmates should take advantage of that because it is difficult to find people who will help inmates with appeals and have the legal knowledge to understand the process.

Criminal defendants who plead guilty (or no contest) usually have their request to appeal denied, but not always.

After a two-year battle in court, I eventually pled guilty to the charges against me, but I appealed the moment I got to prison based on ineffective assistance of counsel. I won my appeal in the Court of Appeals, and when the state fought that decision, I won my appeal in the state Supreme Court. It can happen, but it takes years and there are restrictions about what you can appeal when you plead guilty to the charges made against you.

What happens if you appeal a prison sentence? Inmates find themselves filling out a lot of paperwork and doing a lot of waiting. The wheels of justice turn slowly. While the state can put you behind bars rather quickly, the process of getting out of prison is long and difficult. Plus, the odds are against you.

What is the process of appealing a prison sentence?

In order to get a court of appeals to look at your case, your attorney will need to file a notice of appeal in a timely manner because there are deadlines, and it is nearly impossible to appeal your case if you don’t file the appeal on time.

If an inmate wishes to file an appeal, they need to contact an attorney the moment they get to prison. This means a lot of letter writing and phone calls, but not all attorneys accept collect calls from prison. It is often very helpful to have someone on the outside to make necessary phone calls and to access information on the appeal process because even though inmates have access to a law library, they can’t enter whenever they want.

An inmate must contact an attorney so they can file the notice of appeal on time and order a trial transcript to find out what happened in your case. Most of the time, your original attorney will not be the person representing you in your appeal.

Your lawyer will then write an appellate brief to argue the legal issues in your case, which will be different based on whether or not the inmate pled guilty or was convicted.

I should make it clear that an appeal is not a retrial. You are not arguing whether or not you committed the crime you were charged with. Instead, and appeal is basically an inmate arguing that someone messed up. Either the inmate’s constitutional rights were violated, their lawyer didn’t do their job properly, or the verdict was incorrect because the trial wasn’t fair in some way.

Eventually, the judges will come to a decision and write an opinion stating their reasons for either affirming your conviction or granting your appeal.

This is an incredibly brief explanation of the appeal process. There is so much more to it, and there are so many variables.

What are the possible outcomes of appealing a prison sentence?

When you appeal a prison sentence, there are a few different things that can happen. For those who were convicted by a judge or jury, they could have the judgement reversed and be released. But even then, the state will either appeal that decision or decide to charge you again and take you back to trial where you could be convicted again.

For those, like me, who pled guilty to their charges, winning an appeal means that you can have your sentence vacated and the whole entire process has to start over from the beginning. The prosecutor can decide to just leave you alone and drop the case, or they can keep the charges against you and you will either have to make a plea deal or go to trial. Even when you win an appeal, there is a risk of going back to prison.

In both instances, if you lose your appeal, you are stuck with the original sentence. But, you can appeal to a higher court. Eventually, if you keep losing, you will run out of appeals and must complete your prison sentence. For those serving life sentences with no possibility of parole, that means they will most likely spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

I should also note then when you are incarcerated and win an appeal, in most cases you aren’t automatically released from prison. Again, it depends on the situation, but when I won my appeal in the Court of Appeals, they kept me in prison while the state fought the decision and took my case to the state Supreme Court.

This is an incredibly complex topic, and I just scratched the surface. If you have a loved one who is facing a prison sentence and wants to appeal, contact an attorney immediately.

Do you know someone who has won an appeal? Let us know in the comments below.


What Happens When You Appeal A Sentence?

Appealing a Conviction After Pleading Guilty

Appeals, Appellate Courts, and Costs
  • My Son and ex husband are in prison, they also share the same first and last names. The officials have them mixed up and my ex husbands sentence is for more charges than he had been tried for. Who do I contact about errors being made

  • My boyfriend was sentenced to 18 months. 2 weeks later the judge recended the judgement and gave him an extra year. Citing that he’s a menace to society. Can a judge really do that? Sentence someone to 18months and then change the sentence right after?

  • what is a dying mother to do when her son is sentenced to 15 years in prison just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, there were 4 people in this home (my son was helping the occupants move)drugs and a gun were found in the residence the only person arrested was my son, there were three different DNA found on the gun not belonging to my son but still he was accused and arrested for having the gun and drugs found in the house (not on him) his lawyer told him to take a plea or the prosecuter would file habitual charges. i later find out that my son’s lawyer was working with the prosecuter before she decided to be my son’s lawyer. i feel my son was set up by the police and i have papers to prove it but there is nothing i can do im on disability and im dying of heart failure and cancer. OH did i mention that two days after my son was arrested two guards at the jail went in his cell and beat my son so badly that he had to be taken to the hospital because he almost died and people wonder why i dont trust the system

  • If your sentence expired but their was gonna injustice in your case that sent you to prison. Is there any legal/ civil matter I can perdue? Thank you.. Respectfully William Gossett.

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