What are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?
The federal sentencing guidelines are rules that federal judges are required to consider when sentencing someone who has been convicted of a crime.
These guidelines are written by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent government agency that is part of the judicial branch of the federal government. The commission also advises the other branches of government on criminal policy matters and collects and analyzes crime and sentencing data.
How the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Work
The federal sentencing guidelines take into account both the seriousness of the offense and the offender’s criminal history. The guidelines assign most federal crimes to one of 43 “offense levels.” This is called the base offense level. Each offender is then assigned to one of six “criminal history categories.”
The point at which the offense level and criminal history intersect on the Commission’s sentencing table determines the offender’s guideline range. Judges are advised to choose a sentence from within the guideline range unless they identify a factor that the Sentencing Commission failed to consider that should result in a different sentence.
The sentencing guidelines provide 43 levels of offense seriousness — the more serious the offense, the higher the offense level.
Base Offense Level
Each type of crime is assigned a base offense level, which is the starting point for determining the seriousness of a particular offense. More serious types of crime have higher base offense levels. For example. fraud has a base offense level of 7, while trespass has a base offense level of 4.
Specific Offense Characteristics
In addition to base offense levels, each offense type typically carries with it a number of specific offense characteristics. these are factors that vary from offense to offense, but that can increase or decrease the base eleven and, ultimately, the sentence an offender receives.
One of the specific base offense characteristics for production of child pornography (which has a base offense level of 32) increases the offense level based on the age of the juveniles. If the juvenile is between 12 and 16, there is to be a 2-level increase to the base offense level, bringing it up to a 34. If the juvenile is under the age of 12, there is to be a 4-level increase, bringing it up to a 36.
One of the specific offense characteristics for robbery (which has a base offense level of 20) involves the use of a firearm. If a firearm was brandished during the robbery, there is to be a 5-level increase, bringing the level to 25. If the firearm was discharged during the robbery, there is to be a 7-level increase, bringing it to 27.
Adjustments are factors that can apply to any offense. Like specific offense characteristics, they increase or decrease the offense level. Categories of adjustments include victim-related adjustments, the offender’s role in the offense, and obstruction of justice.
A few examples:
- If the offender was a minimal participant in the offense, the offense level is decreased by 4 levels.
- If the offender knew that the victim was unusually vulnerable due to age or physical or mental condition, the offense level is increased by 2 levels.
- If the offender obstructed justice, the offense level is increased by 2 levels.
Acceptance of Responsibility Adjustments
The final step in determining an offender’s offense level involves the offender’s acceptance of responsibility. The judge may decrease the offense level by two levels if, in the judge’s opinion, the offender accepted responsibility for his offense.
In deciding whether to grant this reduction, judges can consider such factors as:
- whether the offender truthfully admitted his or her role in the crime,
- whether the offender made restitution before there was a guilty verdict, and
- whether the offender pled guilty.
Offenders who qualify for the 2-level reduction and whose offense levels are greater than 15, may, upon motion of the government, be granted an additional 1-level reduction if, in a timely manner, they declare their intention to plead guilty.
Other nuances can play into an offender’s federal sentence. When there are multiple counts of conviction, the sentencing guidelines provide instructions on how to achieve a “combined offense level. The most serious offense is used as a starting point.
Outside the Guidelines
After a guideline range has been determined, the court may depart from it based on any atypical aggravating or mitigating circumstances. In other words, a judge may sentence the offender above or below the range. If departing, the judge must state in writing the reason for the departure.
This is a basic overview of how the federal sentencing guidelines work. For more detailed information, consult with a federal criminal defense attorney.