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What Are Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

Criminal Law

Federal sentencing guidelines provide United States federal criminal judges in federal courts with a set of criteria that can help determine prison time for federal offenses. The guidelines were implemented to make federal sentencing more equitable for anyone tried as a federal criminal and convicted of federal crimes.

The federal sentencing guidelines manual factors in the severity of a crime and the defendant’s criminal history to determine a sentencing range, and the more serious the crime, the more likely that the offender will receive a stiff penalty.

How Offense Seriousness and Base Offense Levels Factor Into Sentencing

The sentencing guidelines first take into account two elements: offense seriousness, and the base offense level.

There are 43 levels of offense seriousness, and as the crimes become more violent, they are categorized as being more serious, which makes them eligible for higher prison sentences.

Every crime has a specific base offense level, which becomes the starting point for how judges determine the severity of a crime. Lower-level offenses like simple assault would have a base offense level of a 3 or 4.

But more serious crimes like kidnapping would carry a higher base offense level of 30 or more. That means a judge would immediately view kidnapping as a crime worthy of a higher prison term, even without factoring in any of the other elements.

Within each base level are what is known as specific offensive characteristics, which can increase or decrease the base levels

An offensive characteristic of a crime like fraud is the amount of money involved. The higher the loss, the greater the level increase.

For example, a $10,000 fraud loss could mean a 3-level increase to the base offense level. If the base offense level were 3, it would then increase to 6, which means a higher prison sentence for the defendant.

But if the loss was only $800, that could decrease the base offense level, because the offensive characteristic isn’t as serious.

How Adjustments and Criminal History Factor Into Federal Sentencing

Another element of the sentencing table is adjustments, which can increase or decrease the offense levels.

Common examples of adjustments include:

  • Minimum Participation: If the offender’s actions during the crime were minimal, that could decrease the offense level by 4 levels.
  • Obstruction of Justice: Increases the offense level by 2 levels.
  • Acceptance of Responsibility: If the offender accepted responsibility for the crime, the judge can decrease the offense level by 2 levels.

The guidelines manual also has a criminal history category that takes the offender’s prior crimes into account.

There are six categories, with Category I the least serious and Category VI the most serious.

Determining the Final Sentencing Range

To determine final offense levels, a judge must add or subtract levels to the base offense taking into account adjustments and offense characteristics.

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the point at which the final offense level and the criminal history category intersect on the Commission’s sentencing table determines the defendant’s sentencing guideline range.

Judges can then pronounce a sentence based on the guideline range.

Protecting Your Civil Rights

In the criminal justice system, offenses such as those committed on federal property, or crimes against the federal government fall under mandatory sentencing policies. While the idea of a sentencing commission may seem unfair, defendants must work within the system.

If you’re facing federal charges, call the experienced team of Premier Federal Criminal Defenders at 1-800-455-6200 to schedule a free consultation. We may be able to reduce your charges or prevent the prosecutor from imposing a supervised release condition at sentencing.

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