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The Spodek Law Group understands how delicate high-profile cases can be, and has a strong track record of getting positive outcomes. Our lawyers service a clientele that is nationwide. With offices in both LA and NYC, and cases all across the country - Spodek Law Group is a top tier law firm.

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Understanding Federal Sentencing Guidelines – Advice from an Attorney

By Spodek Law Group | October 20, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 27, 2023)

Last Updated on: 27th October 2023, 06:54 pm


Understanding Federal Sentencing Guidelines – Advice from an Attorney

If you or a loved one have been charged with a federal crime, you’re probably feeling scared and overwhelmed. The federal criminal justice system can be confusing and intimidating. As an attorney who has represented many clients facing federal charges, I want to provide some plain English advice to help you understand federal sentencing guidelines.

The first thing to know is that federal sentences tend to be much longer than state sentences for similar crimes. There are a couple reasons for this:

  • Congress has passed laws establishing mandatory minimum sentences for many federal offenses. This means judges don’t have as much flexibility or discretion to give shorter sentences.
  • The U.S. Sentencing Commission has created very complicated sentencing guidelines that use a defendant’s criminal history and details of the crime to calculate a recommended sentence range, and judges usually stick close to the guidelines.

So how do the federal sentencing guidelines work exactly? Let me break it down for you in simple terms:

1. Your Criminal History Category

First, the probation office will calculate your criminal history category based on any past convictions. More convictions and more serious convictions lead to a higher category, from I to VI. So if you have multiple prior felonies, you’ll end up in a high category.

2. Your Offense Level

Next, the probation office determines your offense level based on the federal crime you’ve been convicted of and the specific circumstances of your case. Things like the amount of financial loss or drugs involved, possession of a gun, playing a leadership role, etc. can increase your offense level and lead to a harsher sentence recommendation.

3. The Guidelines Table

The probation office then looks at the sentencing table to find where your criminal history category and offense level intersect. This provides a sentencing guideline range stated in months. For example, a category I and offense level 12 leads to a 10-16 month range. The judge will almost always sentence you within this range.

4. Mandatory Minimums

Some federal laws like drug trafficking carry mandatory minimum sentences established by Congress, like 5 or 10 years. If the guideline range is lower than the mandatory minimum, the judge has to disregard the guidelines and sentence you to the mandatory minimum term.

5. Departures from the Guidelines

In limited circumstances, the judge can give a sentence outside the guideline range, if there are factors that make your case atypical. But this doesn’t happen often. Some grounds for departure are providing substantial assistance to the government, or having very severe mental illness or physical condition.

6. Plea Agreements

Many federal cases end up in a plea agreement negotiated between your attorney and the prosecutor. This may stipulate that you plead guilty to a certain charge, in exchange for the prosecutor recommending a lower sentence to the judge.

7. Sentencing Hearing

At the sentencing hearing itself, your attorney will argue for the lowest sentence within the guidelines or for a downward departure. You’ll also have a chance to make a statement to the judge asking for leniency. But in most cases, the judge sentences within the guidelines.

I know this seems overwhelming. The best thing you can do is get an experienced federal criminal defense attorney, who can analyze the sentencing factors in your specific case. A good lawyer knows all the ins and outs of the guidelines and sentencing law. We look for ways to get charges dismissed or reduced through pretrial motions. We identify grounds for departures from the guidelines. We negotiate strongly for plea agreements with lower sentences. And we fight hard at sentencing to convince the judge to go easy on you. Don’t go through this alone.


Length of Federal Criminal Sentences

2021 Sentencing Guidelines Manual

2021 Sentencing Table

Mandatory Minimums for Drug Offenses

Grounds for Departure from Guidelines

Sample Plea Agreement

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