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How Does Federal Sentencing Work?

Federal sentencing guidelines are a set of rules federal judges must follow, or at least consider, when sentencing someone found guilty of committing a federal crime. Enacted to provide federal judges with consistent and fair maximum and minimum sentencing ranges to refer to when delivering a sentence, these guidelines take the seriousness of the crime, the offender’s criminal record, and other characteristics into account.

The guidelines are not mandatory. However, federal judges are advised to consider and follow them. Any judge who deviates from the guidelines by imposing a harsher or more lenient sentence than the guidelines dictate must explain their reason for doing so.

How Sentencing Guidelines Work

Established in 1984 by the United States Congress, the United States Sentencing Commission developed the United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual. In the manual, a specific calibration of sentences is laid out according to total offense level and defendant criminal history.

According to the guidelines, most federal crimes are assigned an offense level from one to 43. The greater the severity of the crime, the higher the number. Federal criminal defendants are also assigned a number from one to six based on their past criminal history.

The criminal history and offense level numbers are then plotted on a sentencing table. The offense level is plotted on the vertical axis, while the criminal history number is plotted horizontally. An offender’s sentencing range is determined by the point in which they intersect.

Federal judges are advised to deliver a sentence within the guideline range. If not, they must defend their position and state their reason for doing so by identifying any extenuating circumstances or factor overlooked by the Sentencing Commission (United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005).

Offense Levels

As discussed above, offense levels are based upon the seriousness of the crime. There are 43 levels of seriousness. Every offense has a base offense level. At the top of the spectrum with a offense level of 43 is first-degree murder. Burglary of a residence, on the other hand, has an offense level of 17.

These levels, however, are just base levels. In other words, they are just a starting point. To determine a final offense level, any adjustments and specific offense characteristics must be added or subtracted from the base offense level.

Offense Level Adjustments

Adjustments are specific factors generally applicable to any offense, and they have the power to decrease or increase the offense level.

Some examples of offense level adjustments include:

• Two level increase if the defendant obstructed justice
• Two level increase if the defendant knew the victim was underage or suffering from a mental or physical condition
• Two level decrease if the defendant clearly accepts responsibility
• Three level increase if the crime was motivated by hate
• Four level decrease if the defendant was a minimal participant

Specific Offense Characteristics

For specific offenses, there may be particular factors or characteristics that can raise the offense level. Therefore, these “specific offense characteristics” can also affect a judge’s sentencing.

Some examples of special offense characteristics include:

• One level increase if a burglary results in loss above $5,000
• Five level increase if a burglary results in loss above $1,500,000
• Five level increase if a firearm was brandished during a robbery

Criminal History

The second major element of the sentencing guidelines is the criminal history of the offender. Offenders are assigned to one of six different criminal history categories. These categories are based upon the recency of past crimes and the length of the sentences handed down. Category I is for first-time offenders and those with less serious criminal records.

Departures from the Guidelines

Lastly, a judge must consider whether or not there are any mitigating or aggravating circumstances not taken into account by the Sentencing Commission when formulating the guidelines (18 U.S.C. § 3553(b)). If a judge determines such a circumstance exists, a sentence can be given below or above the guideline range. However, the reason for doing so must be stated in writing.

Appealing a Federal Sentence

If you have been sentenced in a federal court, you have a constitutional right to appeal the verdict or sentencing decision. Decisions made in federal district court can be appealed by filing a motion with the United States Circuit Court of Appeals. If your appeal has already been heard by the Circuit Court, you can take your appeal to the Federal Supreme Court. However, they rarely grant permission to hear appeals cases.

Your Federal Criminal Defense Team

While sentencing in federal and state criminal cases is quite similar, there are important procedural differences that require the expertise of an experienced federal attorney. Federal investigators are persistent in finding the information needed to build a case against you. You need an attorney who will be even more persistent in your defense.

Regardless of the specifics of your case, our criminal defense attorneys have a wealth of experience defending clients in both state and federal cases. We are here to protect your best interests and ultimately your freedom, so call or contact us today.


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"Spodek Law Group have offered me excellent support and advice thru a very difficult time. I feel I've dealt with someone who truly cares and wants the best outcome for you and yours. I'm extremely grateful for all the help Spodek Law Group has offered me. I can't recommend them..."

David Bruce

"Spodek Law Group was incredibly professional and has given me the best advice I could wish for. They had been helpful and empathetic to my stressful situation. Would highly recommend Spodek Law Group to anyone I meet."

Rowlin Garcia

"Best service I ever had. Todd is absolutely class personified. You are in the safest hands with spodek. They have their clients interest in mind."

Francis Anim
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