Federal Sentencing Guidelines
Anyone convicted of a federal crime is subject to United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines. These guidelines impact the length of your sentence, no matter the location of the court, as long as it’s a federal court.
Many people view these guidelines as being excessively harsh, but they’ve also attempted to limit the power of judges. In the past, judges levied any penalty they chose and sentences were often drastically different despite the crime being similar.
To avoid this disparity and create a more consistent sentencing process, Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The law created the US Sentencing Commission (USSC) and resulted in federal guidelines for sentencing. You can learn more about the USSC by visiting their website here.
Initially, sentencing guidelines were mandatory, but eventually, the US Supreme Court ruled that sentencing guidelines violated Sixth Amendment rights and that the legislative branch didn’t have the power to tell the judicial branch how to handle things.
But this didn’t mean that sentencing guidelines were eliminated entirely. Instead, the “guidelines” part of sentencing guidelines is emphasized and they are viewed as advisory. Judges must consider the guidelines and determine sentences based on the guidelines, but they are not required to issue sentences within the guidelines.
Today, many judges follow the guidelines but have the authority to decrease or increase a sentence based on their discretion. To do so, they must provide a reason for doing so. And in many cases, they’ve used their authority. Since the mandatory guidelines became advisory in 2005, sentences exceeding the recommended range have doubled.
There are periodic updates for guidelines. The most recent occurred in 2018. Additional changes were proposed in 2019. You can view them here.
How Judges Use Sentencing Guidelines
According to the guidelines, sentencing is based on:
- Conduct related to the offense, further broken down into 43 levels
- Criminal history, further broken down into six categories
All federal cries have an offense level and judges can use points to increase or decrease the offense level and sentencing range. In certain circumstances, sentencing is more severe based on the circumstances of the crime. Judges use enhancements to increase the sentence when a crime has an element that makes it more severe.
Examples of this include:
- Hate crimes
- Crimes linked to terrorism
- Crimes against vulnerable victims
- Obstruction of justice
- Abuse of position by convicted
- Use of minors in the crime
- Offending while on release/probation
- Use of a firearm or body armor
Judges also have the ability to reduce sentences. They might do this based on the convicted person accepting responsibility, not being a repeat offender, or accepting a plea agreement.
What Should You Know about Sentencing Guidelines?
You and your attorney can discuss sentencing guidelines and how they’ll affect you based on your circumstances. In general, the important thing to know is that you’ll have some idea of what to expect regarding your sentence before you begin planning your defense.
For instance, if you are accused of a drug crime, the controlled substance in question and how much of it was in your possession determines your sentence. Other determining factors include the arrest location and whether or not you had a weapon with you could also affect your sentence.
If you’re facing charges related to a white-collar crime, the amount of financial loss in question and your targeted victim could affect your sentence.
Also, keep in mind some crimes do have mandatory minimum sentences. For instance, let’s say you are arrested on child pornography charges. The initial mandatory minimum sentence could then be enhanced based on the number of images, whether you distributed those images, whether there was blatant violence in those images, and so on.
The most important thing for you to understand when you are arrested and face potential incarceration is that the specific facts of your case will likely dictate the range of your sentence, but this doesn’t mean it won’t be worse (or more lenient) in the long-run. This is one of the reasons it’s so important to work with an attorney who understands the federal court system and how federal judges and prosecutors approach cases. There are helpful defense strategies, but to make the most of your opportunities, you need an attorney on your side.
For more information about federal sentencing guidelines or to speak to someone about your situation, contact David Lindsey.