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Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 11:32 am
Determining a sentence under the guidelines involves several steps:
While this gives a general overview, applying the guidelines to an actual case is complex. Sentencing factors and departures have specific definitions, and the calculations require legal expertise.
Several components go into determining the recommended sentencing range under the guidelines:
Each federal offense is assigned a base offense level indicating its seriousness. Crimes resulting in death or serious bodily injury tend to have higher base levels, while nonviolent or regulatory offenses have lower levels. For example, first degree murder has a base level of 43 (the highest level), while regulatory offenses like wildlife trafficking have a base level of 6 or 8.
After identifying the base offense level, points are added or subtracted based on factors specific to the actual crime committed. Use of a gun, high dollar losses, vulnerable victims, leadership role, and other circumstances can increase the offense level and sentence length. Acceptance of responsibility through a guilty plea can reduce the level.
The sentencing guidelines heavily emphasize a defendant’s criminal record in determining the recommended range. More extensive and serious prior convictions result in more criminal history points and longer sentences for any subsequent offenses. A “career offender” with multiple prior felonies faces significantly higher ranges.
In limited circumstances, judges can impose sentences above or below the calculated range. Upward departures for things like terrorism, child crimes, or extreme psychological harm extend the sentence. Downward departures for substantial assistance to prosecutors or overstated criminal history can reduce prison time.
Some federal offenses like drug trafficking and firearm possession carry mandatory minimum sentences set by statute. These effectively override the guideline range and require judges to impose at least the minimum term. Mandatory minimums have faced criticism for limiting judicial discretion.
When they were first implemented, the sentencing guidelines had to be followed and were legally binding on federal judges. However, Supreme Court rulings in 2005 made the guidelines advisory rather than mandatory. While judges are still required to properly calculate the guideline range, they can impose non-guideline sentences if they find it is warranted under the circumstances.
Despite now being advisory, the sentencing guidelines continue to substantially influence federal sentences. According to the United States Sentencing Commission, in fiscal year 2020:
– Less than half (44.5%) of sentences fell within the guideline range.
– 29.9% of sentences received downward departures from the range.
– Only 3.6% of sentences received upward departures from the range.
– 22% of sentences fell below the range through variances, while 0.1% fell above the range.
These statistics indicate the guidelines remain a significant factor, even if judges have more flexibility. Sentences within the range still represent close to half of all cases. And even when sentences fall outside the range, they tend to stay near it rather than drastically exceeding it. The guidelines provide the framework, even if judges can color outside the lines.
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