Federal Sentencing Guidelines

What Are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

Federal Sentencing Guidelines If you are currently a defendant in a federal criminal prosecution, and this is your first interaction with the federal criminal court system, you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed and intimidated.  Although the overall purpose and goal of a federal prosecution is the same as a state prosecution, everything from the courtroom procedures to the manner in which a sentence is arrived at if convicted may appear completely different. Clearly, the goal of your defense will be to avoid a conviction; however, in the event you are convicted, you should have at least a basic understanding of how the Federal Sentencing Guidelines work.

Understanding the State and Federal Criminal Courts in the U.S.

In the United States, we operate a federalist form of government which means we have a strong central government (the federal government) and many smaller semi-autonomous governments (state governments). Consequently, we also have two different judicial systems, the federal and state court systems. This means that an individual could be prosecuted in federal court, in a state court, or in both for some types of crimes. If you are prosecuted and convicted in a federal court, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines will be relevant to the sentence you receive from the judge.

The History of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines

There are currently 94 District Courts in the federal criminal justice system. District Courts act as the trial-level courts for the system. Prior to the creation of the Guidelines, all 94 of those courts handled prosecutions involving the same offenses; however, the sentences handed down varied wildly from one court to another. The disparity in sentencing led to the enactment of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. That Act created the United States Sentencing Commission, or USSC. The USSC then created the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in 1987. Although the application of the Guidelines to a defendant’s sentence was originally believed to be mandatory, the Guidelines are now officially considered to be advisory only. Most courts continue to adhere to the Guidelines when handing down a sentence, only deviating from them when a compelling reason is provided for doing so.

How Do the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Work?

The Guidelines give the sentencing judge a sentencing range. The first consideration when determining a sentencing range is the offense level. Currently, there are 43 offense levels, increasing in severity so that level 43 is the most serious. Each criminal offense is assigned a starting offense level; however, that offense level can be increased or decreased if the individual facts and circumstances warrant an upward or downward departure.

The Guidelines provide a uniform method for taking criminal history into account when fashioning a sentence in federal court. There are six criminal history categories in the Guidelines with category I being the best and category VI the worst. Placement in a category is determined by “points” that represent prior convictions. A defendant with zero to one point falls into category I. A defendant with 13 or more points falls into category VI. For example, you would add three points for each prior sentence of imprisonment exceeding one year and one month and another two points if the defendant committed the instant offense while under any criminal justice sentence, including probation, parole, supervised release, imprisonment, work release, or escape status.

The appropriate sentencing range is determined by referring to the Sentencing Table attached to the Guidelines. The recommended sentencing range is found where the offense level and the criminal history category meet in the Sentencing Table. For instance, an offense level 10 with a criminal history category of I has a recommended sentencing range of 6-12 months.

Both upward and downward deviations from the recommended sentencing range are possible. Common reasons for an upward departure include:

  • Death or physical injury resulting from the criminal conduct
  • Extreme psychological injury
  • Possession and/or use of a weapon during the commission of the crime
  • Abduction or unlawful restraint of a victim
  • Disruption of governmental function
  • Participation in a gang
  • Property loss not already accounted for in the sentence

Common reasons found for a downward departure include:

  • “Substantial assistance” to authorities in solving this or another crime
  • Contributing conduct from victim – if the victim’s conduct significantly provoked your conduct
  • Coercion, duress, or diminished capacity
  • Voluntarily disclosing or admitting to the commission of the crime

Contact a Tennessee Criminal Defense Attorney

If you are a defendant in a federal criminal prosecution in Tennessee, it is in your best interests to consult with an experienced Tennessee criminal defense attorney at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby as soon as possible. Contact the team today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your appointment.

Stan Bennett
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