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The Spodek Law Group understands how delicate high-profile cases can be, and has a strong track record of getting positive outcomes. Our lawyers service a clientele that is nationwide. With offices in both LA and NYC, and cases all across the country - Spodek Law Group is a top tier law firm.

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How Does Federal Sentencing Work?

By Spodek Law Group | July 27, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 13, 2023)

Last Updated on: 13th October 2023, 08:21 pm

How Does Federal Sentencing Work?

So you or someone you know got charged with a federal crime. That sucks. The next big question is probably what kind of sentence are they facing. Federal sentencing can be pretty confusing and intimidating, but I’ll try to break it down into simple steps so you can understand the basics of how it works.

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines

The main thing controlling federal sentences is something called the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. This is basically like a rulebook that judges have to follow when deciding sentences. It tells them things like how long a sentence should be based on the type of crime, the defendant’s criminal history, and other factors.The Sentencing Guidelines assign points for different things, and the more points, the longer the recommended sentence. For example, armed robbery starts at a base level of 20 points. If a gun was discharged during the robbery, that’s another 5 points. If the stolen amount was over $10,000, that’s 2 more points. Add it up and you get a total offense level of 27 points.The guidelines have this big table that says how many months in prison each offense level equals. In this example, 27 points equals 70-87 months. So that’s the recommended sentence range the judge would look at.

The guidelines aren’t mandatory anymore, but judges still have to calculate and consider them before imposing a sentence. They can go above or below the range if they have a good reason, but the guidelines anchor their decision.

Guilty Pleas

Over 97% of federal cases end in a guilty plea rather than going to trial.

 There’s a couple reasons for this. The federal conviction rate at trial is super high, over 80%, so the odds are stacked against defendants from the start.

 Even if found not guilty at trial, the stress and expense are huge burdens.When a plea deal is offered, most defendants feel like they have no choice but to take it. The government might agree to drop some charges or recommend a lighter sentence. Rather than risk the maximum if they lose at trial, most defendants will plead out even if they believe they are innocent.

The Presentence Report

After a guilty plea or conviction at trial, a probation officer will prepare a presentence report for the judge. This report describes the defendant’s personal and criminal history, calculates the guidelines range, and may recommend a specific sentence.

Defense lawyers review the report and can object to any errors or misleading facts. The judge resolves any disputes over the presentence report before imposing a sentence.

The Sentencing Hearing

This is the main event where the judge announces the final sentence after considering all the facts and input from both sides. Here’s how it usually goes down:

  • The judge confirms that both sides have reviewed the presentence report and there are no outstanding objections.
  • The defense lawyer argues for leniency, presenting mitigating evidence and witnesses like family, friends, employers, etc.
  • The defendant is given a chance to address the court and express remorse.
  • The prosecutor recommends a sentence, highlighting aggravating factors about the crime.
  • Any victims can describe how the crime impacted them.
  • The judge considers all the facts and makes a final sentencing decision.
  • If the sentence is over 1 year, the defendant is remanded to federal prison. Under 1 year goes to a prison camp.
  • The judge announces conditions like supervised release, restitution, fines, etc.

That’s the basics of how federal sentencing happens after a conviction. Now let’s look at some key factors judges consider when imposing a sentence.

Mitigating and Aggravating Factors

Mitigating factors are details about the defendant or case that could justify a more lenient sentence. These include things like:

  • Minimal criminal history
  • Youthful age
  • Mental health issues
  • Drug addiction
  • Cooperation with prosecutors
  • Strong family and community ties
  • Expression of genuine remorse

Aggravating factors are details that could warrant a harsher sentence. These include things like:

  • Extensive criminal history
  • Leadership role in the crime
  • Major financial gain from the crime
  • Use of violence or weapons
  • Lack of remorse and acceptance of responsibility

The judge weighs mitigating and aggravating factors against each other to determine an appropriate sentence. An experienced federal defense lawyer will present compelling mitigators to secure the lowest possible sentence for their client.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Some federal statutes like drug and firearm offenses require mandatory minimum prison sentences upon conviction. This means judges have no discretion to go lower than the minimum no matter what mitigating factors exist.Mandatory minimums have faced heavy criticism for forcing judges to impose overly harsh sentences regardless of individual circumstances. But as of now, they remain the law for certain federal offenses.

Appeals and Resentencing

A federal sentence can be appealed to the Circuit Court of Appeals within 14 days. Typical grounds for appeals include procedural errors, incorrect application of sentencing guidelines, or unreasonably excessive sentences.If the appeal succeeds, the case gets sent back to the district court for resentencing. But appeals courts give great deference to trial judges, so few sentencing appeals get reversed.


That covers the basic steps and considerations in federal sentencing. To recap, it’s a complex process involving sentencing guidelines, plea deals, presentence reports, sentencing hearings, and appeals. Having an experienced federal defense lawyer is crucial to getting the lowest possible sentence in federal court.I hope this overview helped explain how federal sentencing works. Let me know if you have any other questions!

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