The Federal Sentencing Guidelines
Sentencing in federal criminal cases is controlled, in large part, by the federal sentencing guidelines. Generally speaking, the guidelines take into account two factors, which are: (a) the seriousness of the offense; and (b) the defendant's criminal history. The computation of these two factors lead to the final offense level and, ultimately, the length of the sentence imposed.I. Offense Level/Seriousness of the Offense
The guidelines have 43 levels of offense seriousness. These levels increase with the seriousness of the offense. Calculating where an offense charged in a particular case will fall out on the range of levels requires consideration of several factors.
- Base Offense Level - Every federal offense has a base offense level. This is the starting point for determining the seriousness of a particular offense. As examples, the base offense level for trespass is 4, whereas the base offense level for kidnapping is 32.
- Specific Offense Characteristics - These factors will vary from offense to offense, and can increase or decrease the base offense level and, ultimately, the sentence imposed. For example, robbery has a base offense level of 20. Brandishing a firearm during the robbery results in a five-level increase, which raises the offense level to 25. If the firearm was fired during the robbery, there is a seven-level increase, raising the offense level to 27.
- Adjustments - Adjustments can apply to any offense, and can also increase or decrease the offense level. Adjustments can include victim-related adjustments, the defendant's role in the offense, obstruction of justice, and acceptance of responsibility. For example, if the defendant was a minimal participant in the offense, the offense level is decreased by four levels. If the defendant knew that the victim was unusually vulnerable (e.g., due to age or physical or mental condition), the offense level is increased by two levels. Obstruction of justice results in a two-level increase. Acceptance of responsibility for the offense can result in a three-level decrease.
The guidelines contain six criminal history categories, which are intended to account for the defendant's prior criminal record. Category I is the least serious, where as category VI is the most serious.III. Final Offense Level
The final offense level is determined by taking the base offense level, and then adding or subtracting any specific offense characteristics or adjustments that apply. The defendant's criminal history category, which is a function of prior criminal record, is then determined.
Every version of the guidelines contains a table or graph. The offense levels appear in a column on the left side, and the criminal history categories appear across the top. The rest of the chart is composed of boxes that contain ranges of months. The point on the chart where the final offense level and criminal history category intersect is the guidelines range, or presumptively reasonable sentence.IV. Departures or Variances
While a sentence within the guidelines range is considered presumptively reasonable, a sentencing court may "depart" or "vary" above or below the range. This can result in a lower (sometimes, significantly lower) sentence. The extent to which a defendant qualifies for a departure or variance will depend upon the unique facts and circumstances of their case.
This explanation of the guidelines provides only the most general principles underlying federal sentencing. In fact, the computation of a federal sentence can be very complicated, and requires a careful understanding of the facts of the case and the defendant's personal history. Defendants in federal criminal cases need an attorney who understands the guidelines, and how they can be used to obtain every available point reduction.
James S. Friedman LLC has extensive experience representing defendants in federal court. The firm represents defendants with charges involving narcotics, securities fraud, insider trading, government contracts fraud, internet and computer-related crimes, theft of government property, child pornography, tax crimes, and other federal offenses. If you have been charged with a federal crime in New Jersey, or in any federal court in New York City, your first telephone call should be to us. THE CASE AGENTS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS. DO NOT SPEAK TO THEM. RATHER, JUST TELL THEM YOU WANT A LAWYER, AND CALL US RIGHT AWAY.