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Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 09:56 am
The federal sentencing guidelines are rules that judges follow when determining criminal sentences in federal court. They were created in 1984 to make sentencing more consistent across the country. Here’s a quick overview of how they work:
There’s a lot more nuance to how the offense level and criminal history are calculated. But those are the basics of how the sentencing guidelines table works. Now let’s look at it in more detail…
The offense level always starts with a base level for the particular crime. Then levels are added or subtracted for specific offense characteristics.
For example, let’s say you’re convicted of wire fraud. The base offense level for wire fraud is 7.
Then levels can be added based on the amount of money involved. If the fraud was $15,000 then 2 levels would be added, making the offense level 9. If the fraud was $500,000 then 14 levels would be added, making the offense level 21.
The offense level can also go up or down based on other factors like:
All these adjustments result in a total offense level somewhere between 1 and 43. Higher offense levels mean longer recommended sentences.
The criminal history category is based on past sentences exceeding 1 year and 1 month. More recent and more severe crimes result in more points:
There are also points added for committing the current offense while on probation, parole, or supervised release. Or if the crime was committed less than two years after release from imprisonment.
The total criminal history points put defendants into one of six criminal history categories:
Higher categories mean a higher likelihood of recidivism. So the recommended sentence goes up.
Once the offense level and criminal history category are determined, the judge consults the sentencing table. This table provides sentencing ranges in months:
|Offense Level||Criminal History Category (Criminal History Points)||I (0 or 1)||II (2 or 3)||III (4, 5, 6)||IV (7, 8, 9)||V (10, 11, 12)||VI (13 or more)|
For example, a level 12 offense and category I criminal history gives a range of 10-16 months. A level 25 offense and category VI criminal history gives a range of 110-137 months.
The judge is allowed to sentence within the range. Although they can also go outside the range if they feel it’s warranted and explain why.
There are certain circumstances that allow the judge to give a sentence outside the guideline range. When they have a justified reason to “depart” from the range, either above or below. Some reasons for departure include:
There are many other potential reasons for departures. But the judge has to explain why it’s justified. Departures were more common pre-2005 but are less needed today.
After the 2005 Supreme Court decision in US v. Booker, the guidelines became advisory rather than mandatory. This gave judges much more flexibility to sentence outside the range without needing a specific departure reason.
These sentences diverging from the guidelines are called “variances.” The factors judges can consider include:
Defense attorneys argue these factors warrant a sentence below the guidelines. Common arguments are that the range is too high, the defendant’s role was minor, previous punishments were sufficient, or no prior record.
Judges have used their increased discretion to issue below-guideline sentences more frequently. In 2011, over 17% of sentences were below the range compared to 12% in 2006.
While the guidelines provide a starting point, the judge has to consider other factors as well:
The judge considers all these factors, the guidelines, arguments from both sides, and their discretion to determine an appropriate sentence.
If you’re facing federal charges, the prospect of federal prison is daunting. Here are some tips for getting the lowest possible sentence:
The federal sentencing guidelines are complicated, but understanding them is key to navigating the process. While the guidelines dictate a sentencing range, judges have discretion to go lower. An experienced lawyer along with a thoughtful mitigation strategy gives you the best chance at the lowest possible sentence.
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