Federal sentencing guidelines are a very complex series of calculations and rules driven by the unique facts of a case that lead to a corresponding sentence. The following is information on how these guidelines work and the history behind the sentencing guidelines. To learn more or discuss how these apply to your case, consult with a DC federal criminal lawyer today.
The United States federal sentencing guidelines work by attributing points to various federal criminal offenses. These initial points are called base offense levels. Each base offense level is then modified by a variety of mitigating and aggravating factors. The application of these factors depends upon the facts of the case. For example, if the case involves a vulnerable victim or victims, the guidelines might require adding points to the base offense level, thus raising the total offense level.
Adjustments can also be made to an offense level. For example, a defendant’s role in an offense can increase or decrease the defendant’s total offense level. As an example, a defendant who serves as a leader of a criminal enterprise will likely have his offense level increased. However, a defendant who played a small or minor role in the criminal enterprise would likely see their offense level decrease to reflect the fact that they were less culpable than the other people involved in the crime.
The other important calculation in the federal sentencing guidelines is the defendant’s criminal history. Criminal history is important to the sentencing because federal judges want punishment to be consistent with the law. People who have a more extensive criminal history tend to receive higher sentences than those who are first time offenders.
The guidelines include an equation that translates the criminal history into points organized by the severity of a defendant’s prior offenses. The points then correspond with a schedule in the guidelines called criminal history categories. The more points the defendant has in their criminal history, the higher criminal history category they will fall under.
Then the offense level and criminal history category are compared to a chart called the sentencing table. The Y axis is the offense level and the X axis is the criminal history category. The defendant’s particular points then fall upon a guidelines range that corresponds to a particular offense level and criminal history category.
The guidelines first appeared in 1987 by an Act of Congress. The authority under which the guidelines are issued is 28 USC, Section 994A. The basic goal of the federal sentencing guidelines is to enhance the ability of the criminal justice system to determine sentences in a fair and effective system. By turning sentencing into a mechanical application of points, with additions and subtractions, Congress tried to avoid confusion by establishing consistency in sentencing. Prior to the guidelines, sentencing was a function reserved almost entirely for the presiding judge in the case.
The guideline sought to address the problem of unfair and inconsistent sentencing. Prior to the use of the guidelines, federal judges had nearly unfettered authority to sentence each defendant to whatever sentence they deemed appropriate as long as it was not an illegal sentence. An illegal sentence is one beyond the statutory maximum of a particular crime or below the statutory minimum of a particular crime. Congress tried to make sentencing as predictable and rational as possible, and for the first 18 years of the guideline’s existence federal judges were required to use the guidelines in almost every case.
After the Booker decision in 2005, the guidelines were rendered advisory in nature – not mandatory. This is misleading, however, because procedurally every judge presiding over a sentence must correctly calculate the guideline range in a case and consider the guidelines before sentencing a defendant. As such, the guidelines are still highly persuasive. Judges tend to sentence defendants to the recommended advisory guideline range in a given case.
Many states in the United States have sentencing guidelines; however, they may not be as complex or as persuasive as the ones in the federal system. The same can be said about sentencing guidelines in foreign countries.
The interplay between the sentencing guidelines and the 3553(a) factors can be very confusing, especially after the U.S. vs. Booker decision. Having an attorney that is familiar with the guidelines, its various statements of policy, departures, and the 3553(a) factors can go a long way in influencing the Court to calculate a favorable guideline range.
Also, having an attorney who keeps abreast of the case law in federal sentencing can help with the development of arguments pursuant to 3553(a) factors. These arguments, which are called requests for downward variances for below guideline sentences, can be very persuasive to a judge imposing a sentence that is below the correctly calculated guideline range.
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