What are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

December 1, 2015  |  crime, federal, guidelines, parole, sentencing

      Federal criminal cases are radically different from state criminal cases.  In federal court, fewer cases are prosecuted than in state court.  Fewer federal offenses fall within sentencing guidelines ranges for probation.  Diversion programs are limited and generally the offer of diversion is solely within the discretion of the prosecutor.  Federal crimes are defined by complicated statutes which carry their own sentences for incarceration, fines and restitution.  The statutory sentences represent the potential maximum sentence and it is frequently said that the statutory sentence can trump the guideline sentence.

      What then are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?   The guidelines were promulgated by the United States Sentencing Commission pursuant to the sentencing Reform Act adopted in 1984.  All federal criminal offenses will have a potential sentence set by statute and a sentence set by the guidelines.   The sentencing guideline manual is amended at least once a year and usually is effective on November 1 of each year.  The current version of the guideline manual can be accessed online at the website of the United States Sentencing Commission,

      The beginning and ending point for the guidelines is the sentencing table contained in Chapter 5.  The sentencing table is an X and Y graph similar to that which used to be covered in high school math.  The X side of the graph is the offense level and the Y side of the graph is the criminal history category.  At the point where the two points intersect is the applicable sentencing range.

      The applicable guideline can be found in the statutory index to the guidelines.  The specific guideline defines the conduct and the mitigating or aggravating factors that can decrease or increase the offense level.  For example, the quantity of drugs may define the offense level in a drug conspiracy charge, while the amount of money involved in a fraud or robbery charge may affect the offense conduct for that charge.  Victim’s rights are considered and injury to a person;  the use of another person’s identity or the abuse of a position of trust can increase the offense level.            

      Criminal history is generally calculated under the guidelines as one point for each misdemeanor conviction exceeding thirty days (probated or served) and three levels for each felony conviction.  There are also other factors that may increase or adjust an individual’s criminal history category just like the adjustments for the offense level.  Frequently plea negotiations and written plea agreements seek to define the applicable guidelines and frame the facts that will affect the adjustments under them for sentencing purposes.  The sentencing guidelines are not mandatory but are one of the factors that the court must consider under federal law in fashioning an appropriate sentence. 

      Parole has been abolished in the federal system and the sentence imposed by the court using the statutory factors and the guidelines is the actual amount of time in prison that an individual may have to serve.  The only reduction from the actual sentence imposed is for good time while incarcerated or successful completion of a substance abuse program while incarcerated.

      Should you find yourself charged with a criminal offense in federal court, please contact our office and we will walk you through the complicated procedures, including the applicable guidelines.

Authored by: Gary J. Sergent