A Brief Introduction to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines
As explained elsewhere on this site, one of the major differences in federal court and state court is the application of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in determining what sentence you will receive after your conviction in federal court. Your conviction can come as a result of your plea of guilty, or if you are found guilty after a trial. Either way, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines will play a major factor in the determination of your sentence.
The federal sentencing guidelines are published by the United States Sentencing Commission, which was created by Congress as part of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are rules that set out a uniform sentencing policy for individuals and organizations convicted of felonies and serious misdemeanors in the federal court system. The guidelines are published in a thick book each year, usually with several supplements, and there are literally thousands of court cases dealing with their interpretation and application.
The first thing to understand is that, since 2005, federal judges are not bound by the recommendations in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The U.S. Supreme Court, in United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005) determined that the guidelines are advisory only. Judges must determine the sentencing range according to the guidelines, and must consider them when determining a sentence, but are not required to issue sentences within the guidelines. Instead, judges must impose a sentence, in accordance with 18 U.S.C. § 3553, which is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary,” to comply with:
- the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant; and
- the need for the sentence imposed to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense; to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct; to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant; and to provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care, or other correctional treatment in the most effective manner.
In practice, however, most federal judges stay within, or very close to the guidelines calculation when imposing a sentence (see this post from Clarence’s Mississippi Criminal Defense Blog), but the entire federal sentencing process provides ample opportunity for a good federal criminal defense lawyer to make a difference in your case.
How The Federal Sentencing Guidelines Work:
In the most basic terms, the sentencing guidelines provide a recommended range of sentencing options based on the seriousness of the offense and your previous criminal history. This chart is from the 2010 Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual, and obtaining the “levels” necessary to enter this chart and determine your recommended sentencing range is the result of an incredibly complex set of calculations.
The sentencing guidelines provide for 43 levels based on the seriousness of the offense. As you can see from the chart, the more serious the crime, after adjustments, the worse your sentence will be, from probation-eligible all the way to life imprisonment. Each crime is assigned a base offense level as a starting point. More serious crimes have a higher offense level (for example, tampering with a vehicle’s odometer has a base offense level of 6, while burglary of a residence has a base offense level of 17). The base offense level can change according to the application of several factors:
- Specific Offense Characteristics – these are factors that vary depending on the charged offense (for example, the amount of loss can increase your base level in theft-related and financial crimes, and displaying or discharging a firearm during a robbery can greatly increase the offense level)
- Adjustments – these are factors that can apply to any offense that may increase or decrease the final offense level. These may be based on the characterization of the victim, your role in the offense, or your possible obstruction of justice (for example, if you are determined to be a “minimal participant,” your level can be decreased by four levels; if the victim is determined to be “vulnerable,” the offense level is increased, etc.)
- Multiple Counts – if you are charged in a multiple count indictment, a formula is used to determine a “combined offense level” to enter the table with.
- Acceptance of Responsibility – your offense level may be decreased by two levels if, in the judge’s opinion, you have accepted responsibility for your actions. It may also be possible to gain a further reduction based on acceptance of responsibility in your Plea Agreement.
Criminal History Category
The guidelines will translate your prior criminal record into one of six criminal history categories by assigning points for prior sentences, juvenile adjudications, and how recently these crimes took place. The number of points scored for a prior sentence is based primarily on the sentence’s length, and points are also added if you committed the instant offense while still under any other sentence for a prior crime (i.e., you are on probation). Your prior criminal history may also place you in certain repeat offender categories, such as “career offender,” “armed career criminal,” or “repeat child-sex offender,” which will subject you to enhanced punishment under the guidelines, depending on your situation.
Your Sentencing Guidelines Range
Your initial sentencing guidelines range is the point on the chart at which the final offense level and the criminal history category intersect. This range is expressed in months.
After the initial guideline range is determined, the judge may depart from this guideline range if it finds that “there exists an aggravating or mitigating circumstance of a kind, or to a degree, not adequately taken into consideration by the Sentencing Commission in formulating the guidelines that should result in a sentence different from that described.” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(b). If the judge finds reason for a “departure,” you can be sentenced either above or below the recommended range. The judge must state the reasons for such a departure in writing so that it may be reviewed by an appellate court if necessary. An example of a departure is a reduction of your sentence for providing “substantial assistance” to the government, or if there are extreme mitigating circumstances. It is important that your lawyer discuss with you if there are any opportunities to advocate for a downward departure in your sentence. A successful campaign for a downward departure can knock months or even years off your final sentence.
Consult with a Federal Criminal Defense Attorney
This is a VERY basic introduction to the highly complex area of law having to do with federal sentence computation. Each case is different, and so you are strongly advised to consult with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney on your specific situation. When you face federal charges and retain our firm, we are with you all the way. Our first mission always is to have your charges dismissed or to beat the charges at trial. If that is not possible we will negotiate a reduction of the charges, advocate for a lighter sentence, or to get you the best possible result in the appellate process. If you have any questions, give us a call at 601-991-1099 or toll free at 866-991-1555, or email Clarence directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.