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How Do The Federal Sentencing Guidelines Work?

October 12, 2021

What are Federal Crimes?

These are a violation of laws or statutes enacted by the U.S. Congress. Federal crimes differ from state crimes in the sense that the latter are a violation of laws or statues enacted by a local authority or the state legislature. Federal crimes are more concerned with addressing nationwide criminal activity.

Examples of Federal Crimes
• Bank robbery
• Band fraud
• Counterfeiting
• Small business loan fraud
• Merchant cash advance fraud
• Civil rights offenses
• Mail fraud
• Health care fraud
• Firearms offenses

History of Federal Sentencing
Before 1987, federal judges sentenced persons depending on their individual cases. Judges had discretion to hand out maximum penalties. This system was such that there was a great difference between the sentences hand down to individuals situated in different places. These differences were addressed by the setting up of the United States Sentencing Commission that was responsible for developing a standardized sentencing system. This commission enacted sentencing guidelines that outlined uniform sentences for all federal crimes. These guidelines provide that an individual sentence should be based on the type of offense charged and an individual’s criminal history.

In 2005, significant changes were made to the federal sentencing process. The Supreme Court in Booker stated that the guidelines for sentencing were not mandatory and also changed the process of appeal for a federal sentence. This means that federal judges do not have to sentence a defendant following the sentencing guidelines. However, they must take these guidelines into account when sentencing.

The Federal Sentencing Process
If a defendant pleads guilty, it always results from a plea agreement. This is an arrangement between the prosecutor and defendant on what action the defendant is going to accept guilt and what the sentencing shall be. The defendant will then confess their guilt to the judge in what is referred to as the allocution.

Pre sentence Report
Following the allocution, your case is headed towards sentencing. First, the U.S. Department of Probation arranges for a pre-sentence interview. During the interview, the probation department drafts a pre-sentence report (PSR) and the defendant is given an opportunity to correct the report if there are any omissions or mistakes. Thereafter, the PSR is handed to the judge and contains a recommendation on the suitable sentence for the defendant’s crime.

The Sentencing Memorandum
The defendant is afforded the opportunity to justify their actions before the court through their criminal attorney. The defendant’s attorney presents to the court a sentencing memorandum that persuades the judge that the defendant should get a lesser sentence because of the nature of the defendant and the circumstances that led to the crime.

The Sentencing
After the judge receives the pre sentence report, prosecutor’s recommendation and sentencing memorandum, he/she is ready to issue a sentence. A judge may choose to follow the sentencing guidelines or depart up or down when issuing a verdict. Some of the factors that a judge considers before sentencing include:

• Whether the defendant is a repeat offender or first time offender
• Whether the defendant was the main offender or an accessory (assisting the main offender)
• Whether the defendant performed their criminal actions under duress or great personal stress
• Whether somebody was hurt
• Whether the criminal act was done in a way that would not have resulted in anyone getting hurt
• Whether the defendant was cruel, destructive or vindictive when committing the crime
• Whether the defendant is remorseful

How Do The Federal Sentencing Guidelines Work?

When sentencing someone in a federal case, the judge uses Federal Sentencing Guidelines. These guidelines are set by Congress to establish minimum and maximum time of imprisonment according to preset criteria. While the guidelines offer important oversight, the rules are somewhat flexible. It means that judges may also deviate from the Federal Sentencing Guidelines based on the particular circumstances of a case.

To determine the length of a prison sentence, the guidelines take into account two factors:

  1. The seriousness of the crime
  2. The criminal history of the person who committed the crime.

The Seriousness of the Crime

The seriousness of the crime is one of the main factors that determine the length of a sentence. The sentencing guidelines offer 43 levels of offense that can either sentence a person to less than a month or put them in prison, forever.

43 Base Offense Levels

To determine the severity of a crime the judge looks at the base level. There are 43 base levels. The base offense level is the starting point. For instance, the base level for trespassing is 4 while the base level for kidnapping is 32. Based on the base offense level, a kidnapper will get a lengthier prison sentence than a trespasser.

Charcateristics of the Offense

It is important to understand that base levels are just a starting point. The judge can increase or decrease the base level. Let’s take a look at the following examples to understand this concept:

  • Fraud is a 7 base offense level. However, it doesn’t make sense to give similar sentences to a person involved in a $6,000 fraud and another person charged with a $50,000 fraud. Based on the degree of financial loss, there is to be a 2 offense level increase to the sentence of a person involved in a $6,000 fraud and a 6 offense level increase to the person charged with a $50,000 fraud. Under these circumstances, the final offense level is 9 points and 13 points in two different cases.
  • Robbery is a 20 base offense level. If a robber threatened the plaintiff with a gun, the judge can add 5 levels to the base offense level. Similarly, if the weapon was discharged in a robbery, even if it didn’t result in injury or death, the judge may add 7 offense levels to the base level. Accordingly, the offense level will increase to 25 and 27 levels based on two different scenarios.

Adjustments in Offense Level

Despite the existing guidelines on offense level, a judge can increase or decrease the level subject to certain conditions. For instance, anyone convicted on multiple counts will likely receive a higher level because there is more than one conviction. If additional counts are significant, the most serious offense is taken as a base level and other counts are added incrementally.

Judges can also reduce the offense level if the offender truthfully admitted the role, made restitution before the guilty verdict, or pled guilty.

Criminal History

Criminal history is the second important factor the determines the overall length of imprisonment. Based on the past criminal record, the judge assigns a specific category, ranging from I to IV, to each offender.

Category I is assigned to someone who doesn’t have a criminal background. On the other hand, a habitual criminal, who has committed several crimes, may be given, Category 6. The higher the category, the higher the probability of getting a lengthy sentence.

Take a look at the example in the previous section. Let’s assume that there are two people involved in a robbery and both of them used a weapon. One of them is a first-time offender while the other is a hardened criminal with a history of crimes. While the judge will assign each robber 25 points, 20 points for robbery, and 5 points for threatening with a gun, the final offense level will be higher for the hardened criminal.

In simple words, federal sentencing guidelines also consider the criminal history of the perpetrator when determining the length of imprisonment.

The Guideline Range

The length of the term is determined in months.

A sentencing table offers an easy-to-understand visual guideline for the judge. There are usually six columns in a sentencing table indicating the criminal history level from I to IV. Similarly, there are 43 rows, each reflecting the offense level from 1 to 43.

The point at which the criminal history level and the offense level intersects defines the total number of months of imprisonment.

Taking guidance from the sentencing table, this is how a judge may determine the imprisonment guideline range:

Person A:
No Criminal History – Category I
Offense Level – 25
Guideline Range for Category I and Offense Level 25 is 57 to 71 months imprisonment.

Person B:
Hardened Criminal – Category VI
Offense Level – 25
Guideline Range for Category I and Offense Level 25 is 110 to 137 months imprisonment.

The Final Verdict

Federal Sentencing Guidelines are established to offer consistency and to make it easier for the judges to determine the length of imprisonment. Despite these guidelines, judges can select to depart from the range. This usually happens if the judge determines that a particular case falls outside the normal range. In doing so, they still need to provide a reason to deviate from the range.

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