What Are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

The United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) has developed Sentencing Guidelines to create greater efficiency and fairness in imposing sentences for federal cases. The Guidelines account for several factors judges may consider when determining the punishments to impose upon a conviction. The variables include the severity of the offense itself, special characteristics of the crime, the defendant's role, and the defendant's criminal history. The Guidelines are not mandatory. Judges could deviate from them if the circumstances involved in a particular case are not covered. Any sentence increases or decreases departing from the USSC's recommendations must be noted.

If you have been charged with a federal crime, schedule a consultation with our Los Angeles lawyers at Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP by calling (800) 462-7160 or submitting an online contact form.

What Is the Impact of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

Criminal penalties serve several purposes: to deter future crimes, punish offenders, and rehabilitate individuals. The sanctions imposed should fit the alleged offense. In the past, judges would render sentences primarily based on their discretion. This could create a great discrepancy in the prison terms levied for crimes involving similar circumstances and similar defendants.

The Sentencing Guidelines remedy injustices. Rather than judges relying on their discretion to determine prison terms, they have various factors to consider and incorporate into their decision. Crimes with like circumstances are punished similarly. Yet, offenses with certain aspects unique to them also include appropriate penalties.

Although the Sentencing Guidelines provide some uniformity, they do not account for everything. Thus, they cannot ensure 100% fairness.

What Factors Are Considered in Federal Sentencing?

The variables that go into determining federal sentences are split into two broad categories: offense level and criminal history.

Offense Level

When determining a sentence, a federal judge must first identify the base level for the crime the defendant allegedly committed. In the Sentencing Guidelines, offense levels range from 1 to 43. Lower numbers indicate a less serious crime, and higher numbers are associated with more severe offenses. For example, trespassing has a base offense level of 4. In contrast, kidnapping has a base level of 32.

After the judge has the base level, they must consider the offense's special characteristics. Each crime has its own characteristics that can increase or decrease the base level.

For instance, special characteristics of kidnapping include:

  • Asking for a ransom or making a demand on the government:
    • Increases the base level by 6 points
  • Using a dangerous weapon:
    • Increases the base level by 2 points

The next factor to consider is adjustments. These are also variables that can increase or decrease the offense level. However, they are concerned with who was involved and what actions the defendant took. Unlike special characteristics, they are not unique to a crime. Instead, they can be applied to any offense.

Examples of adjustments include:

  • Victim-related: If the target of the crime was a vulnerable victim, the offense level increases by 2
  • Offender's role: If the defendant had a minimal part, the offense level decreases by 4
  • Obstruction of justice: If the defendant did anything to inhibit the investigation, prosecution, or sentencing, the offense level increases by 2

The judge obtains the final offense level by taking the base level and adding or subtracting points based on special characteristics and adjustments.

Using kidnapping as an example:

  • Base level:
    • 32
  • Special characteristics:
    • 6 points added for asking for a ransom
    • 2 points added for using a dangerous weapon
  • Adjustments:
    • 2 points added for targeting a vulnerable victim
    • 4 points subtracted for having a minimal role
    • 2 points added for obstructing justice
  • Overall offense level:
    • 40

Before the judge can decide on a sentence based on the Sentencing Guidelines, they must also determine the defendant's criminal history category.

Criminal History Category

Under the Sentencing Guidelines, there are 6 criminal history categories. Category I is for defendants with a limited criminal past, primarily first-time offenders. Category VI is the most severe and includes repeat offenders.

A defendant's criminal history category is determined by the number of points assigned based on prior criminal convictions.

For example, the defendant receives:

  • 3 points for each conviction where a sentence of more than 1 year, 1 month was imposed.
  • 2 points for each conviction where a sentence of at least 60 days was imposed.
  • 1 point for any other prior conviction sentence.

Other factors may also be considered, such as whether the defendant is an armed career criminal.

Criminal history categories are assigned as follows:

  • Category 1:
    • 0 or 1 point
  • Category 2:
    • 2 or 3 points
  • Category 3:
    • 4, 5, or 6 points
  • Category 4:
    • 7, 8, or 9 points
  • Category 5:
    • 10, 11, or 12 points
  • Category 6:
    • 13 or more points

Determining the Sentence

Once the judge has both the offense level and criminal history category, they can refer to the Sentencing Table for the sentence range. On the table's vertical access is the offense level, and on the horizontal is the criminal history category. The judge locates the appropriate numbers for each and follows the rows and columns until they intersect. The sentencing range is where the offense level and criminal history category meet.

To illustrate, let's return to the kidnapping example. The offense level is at 40. Let's say the defendant is in criminal history category 3. With these numbers, the possible sentence the judge can impose is 360 months to life.

Are the USSC Sentences Required in a Federal Case?

Federal judges are not mandated to impose a sentence based on the Guideline range. As mentioned before, not all situations are accounted for. The judge may be deciding a case where unique mitigating or aggravating factors are present. Applying a sentence without accounting for these circumstances would be unfair and may be considered a violation of the defendant's Sixth Amendment rights.

If a judge deviates from the Sentencing Guidelines, they must provide a written explanation justifying their decision.

Contact Our Firm Today

At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, we defend those accused of federal crimes. Our team in Los Angeles works tirelessly to protect our clients' rights and pursue just outcomes. If the case results in a conviction, we present evidence to seek leniency in sentencing.

Contact us at (800) 462-7160 to discuss your case.