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:
- The seriousness of the crime
- 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 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:
No Criminal History – Category I
Offense Level – 25
Guideline Range for Category I and Offense Level 25 is 57 to 71 months imprisonment.
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.