Understanding Federal Sentencing Guidelines

The United States operates under a federalist form of government, meaning we have a strong central government along with semi-autonomous state governments. This also means we have both a federal judicial system and individual state judicial systems. If you are prosecuted and convicted of a crime by the U.S. federal government, you will be sentenced using the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. As such, every defendant in a federal prosecution should understand how the Federal Sentencing Guidelines work and how they might be applied to your situation.

Federal sentencing guidelines - Las Vegas, NV

Why Do We Have the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

Within the federal court system, there are 94 District Courts at the bottom of the judicial system pyramid. These courts act as trial-level courts when a defendant is prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office (federal prosecutors). Prior to the enactment of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, each District Court had considerable discretion when sentencing defendants, leading to wide disparity in the sentences handed down for seemingly similar crimes. In 1984, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) was established as part of the Sentencing Reform Act. 

The USSC, in turn, created the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in 1987. Initially, application of the Guidelines was viewed as mandatory; however, they are now considered to be advisory only. Nevertheless, most federal judges stick close to the Guidelines when imposing a sentence unless a compelling reason is provided for a departure from the recommended sentence.

How Do the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Work?

All federal criminal offenses are assigned an offense level from one to 43 with level 43 offenses being reserved for the most serious crimes under the federal criminal code. In addition, each defendant is assigned a criminal history category from I to VI. A defendant’s placement in a category is determined by “points” that represent prior convictions with placement in Category I, meaning you have virtually no criminal history, and Category VI indicates a lengthy and usually violent criminal history.

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines provide a suggested sentencing range in months determined by where the offense level intersects with the defendant’s criminal history category. For example, a defendant convicted of a crime with an offense level of 20 and whose lack of criminal history puts him in Category I will have an advisory sentence of 33–41 months. That same defendant would be facing a sentence of 70–87 months with a Category VI criminal history.

What Does an “Upward/Downward Departure” from the Guidelines Mean? 

Not only are the Guidelines officially intended to be “advisory” only, but there are well-accepted reasons to increase or decrease a defendant’s advisory sentence. Common reasons for increasing a defendant’s sentence, referred to as an “upward departure”, include:

  • Death or physical injury occurred as a result of the defendant’s criminal conduct.
  • Extreme psychological injury occurred because of the defendant’s criminal conduct.
  • Possession and/or use of a weapon during the commission of the crime.
  • Abduction or unlawful restraint of a victim.
  • The criminal conduct resulted in the disruption of a governmental function.
  • The defendant was/is a member of a gang.
  • The criminal conduct caused property loss not already accounted for in the sentence.

Just as there are commonly accepted reasons to increase a sentence, there are also reasons to decrease a defendant’s advisory sentence. This is referred to as a “downward departure” and may be justified if:

  • The defendant provided “substantial assistance” to authorities in solving this or another crime.
  • The victim contributed to or provoked the defendant’s conduct.
  • It is shown that the defendant was coerced, was under duress, or suffered from diminished capacity at the time of the commission of the crime.
  • The defendant voluntarily disclosed or admitted to the commission of the crime.

What Should I Do If I Am Facing Criminal Charges?

If you have been charged with a federal criminal offense, you should consult with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney immediately. You have several important rights throughout the investigation and prosecution of your case; however, you must understand and assert those rights for them to protect you. Contact The Federal Defenders to discuss your legal rights and options by calling 800-712-0000 or contacting us online.