Are Federal Sentencing Guidelines Mandatory?

The U.S. Sentencing Commission establishes the federal sentencing guidelines. The policies provide recommendations on the sentence ranges that can be imposed upon persons convicted of federal crimes. The terms of imprisonment are based on several factors, including the severity of the offense and the defendant's criminal history, and adjustments can be made for the characteristics of the crime and the defendant’s behavior.

The federal sentencing guidelines are not mandatory. A judge may refer to them for sentencing considerations. However, they can deviate from the ranges after accounting for mitigating and aggravating factors.

At Patituce & Associates our Cleveland team provides aggressive defense for federal charges. Call us at (440) 709-8088 or contact us online today.

What Are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

The federal sentencing guidelines provide a uniform policy for imposing prison terms on individuals convicted of federal crimes. The intent is to facilitate fairness in the justice process by allowing federal judges to consult a sentencing table when deciding on the penalties for most offenses.

What’s Considered When Determining the Sentence for a Crime?

The prison term ranges on the federal sentencing guidelines are determined by the severity of the offense and the defendant’s criminal history. The crimes are assigned a level, and the defendant’s criminal history a point value. The level and point value are based on several factors.

Assigning an Offense Level

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has given most federal crimes a base level, from 1 to 43. Less serious offenses have a low number, and more serious ones have a high number. For instance, trespassing has a base level of 4, whereas kidnapping is 32 and first-degree murder is 43.

Some offenses also have characteristics attached to them. These characteristics, which vary from one crime to the next, are assigned point values that can increase or decrease the base level. For instance, having a weapon while trespassing carries an additional 2 points. Thus, the base level goes up from 4 to 6.

The sentencing guidelines also allow for upward or downward adjustments to the base level depending on the nature of the crime.

Adjustments include:

  • Victim-related: For instance, if the defendant knew that the victim was a vulnerable individual, the base level can increase by 2.
  • Role in the offense: For example, if the defendant played a small part in furthering the offense, the base level can decrease by 4. However, if they organized the crime, the level would increase by 4.
  • Obstruction: For instance, if the defendant impeded the investigation or prosecution of the offense, the base level could increase by 2.

The final offense level is the base level plus or minus the specific characteristics and adjustments. To illustrate, if a defendant was convicted of trespassing, their base level is 4. Two points are added because the offense involved a dangerous weapon, bringing them to a 6. An additional 2 points are tacked on because the defendant obstructed justice. The final level in this example is 8.

Assigning Criminal History Points

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has established 6 criminal history categories. Category I is the least serious, and Category VI is the most. Typically, a person is in Category I if they are a first-time offender and in Category VI if they have a lengthy and severe criminal background.

More specifically, the Criminal History Category is determined by the number of points assessed to a defendant based on the severity of the offense.

For instance, if the crime was punishable by:

  • More than 1 year, 3 points are added
  • At least 60 days, 2 points are added
  • Any other sentence, 1 point is added

The total points correlate to the Criminal History Category as follows:

  • 0 or 1: Category I
  • 2 or 3: Category II
  • 4, 5, or 6: Category III
  • 7, 8, or 9: Category IV
  • 10, 11, or 12: Category V
  • 13 or more: Category VI

Determining the Sentencing Range

In the sentencing table, the offense level sits on the vertical axis and the Criminal History Category on the horizontal. The sentencing range is determined by where the offense level and Criminal History Category intersect.

Returning to our trespassing example from earlier, if the offense level was 8 and the defendant was in Category II, the judge could sentence them to 4 to 10 months of imprisonment.

Can the Judge Deviate from the Sentencing Guidelines?

The federal sentencing guidelines are non-mandatory, providing judges a reference for determining a prison term. Thus, a judge can deviate from them. They can impose a more severe or lenient sentence based on mitigating or aggravating circumstances.

If a judge decides to deviate from the guidelines, they must provide a written justification for doing so and be able to point to the specific factors that led them to increase or decrease the sentence.

Contact Patituce & Associates Today

When our Cleveland attorneys take on a federal criminal matter, we are prepared to seek the best possible results for our clients. While we work toward favorable outcomes, such as dismissals or acquittals, we recognize that convictions happen. In such situations, we continue to fight for our clients, attempting to convince the judge that a departure from the sentencing guidelines is justified because of certain mitigating factors.

To discuss your case with us, please call (440) 709-8088 or submit an online contact form today.