The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are nonbinding instructions for punishing criminal defendants in a uniform manner.

Although the 2017 sentencing guidelines are not compulsory, judges must consider them as they assess appropriate sentences for defendants convicted in the federal court system. When judges deviate from the guidelines, they are required to explain the factors that went into increasing or decreasing a sentence from what the guidelines would impose.

If you have been charged with a federal crime, it is vital that you work with an experienced criminal defense attorney to ensure that you fully understand the ramifications of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  Attorney Michael J. Petro has nearly 30 years of experience defending clients in federal court.

How Do the Guidelines Work?

Under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, persons convicted of federal crimes are assigned to one of 43 offense levels based on the severity of their crimes. Higher offense levels are reserved for crimes with more serious consequences. For instance, a specific type of burglary might have an offense level of 17, while first-degree, premeditated murder ranks at the top level of 43.

In addition, every convicted criminal defendant is also categorized within six descriptive groups based on the extent of the person’s criminal history.  In short, people with more criminal history are given longer sentences than first time offenders.

Sentencing ranges for a specific offender convicted of a specific crime are determined by considering both the offense level and criminal history category of the offender.

Judges must determine sentences from within the ranges provided by the guidelines unless the judge  specifies factors for a higher or lower sentence the Guidelines suggest. Increasing or Decreasing  Offense Levels

The sentencing guidelines include base offense levels for a particular crime along.  Certain factors can result in an increase or decrease to the base offense level  with additional offense levels added on for specific aggravating characteristics for a particular offense..

Factors that can raise or lower offense levels are known as adjustments and are classified according to the role an offender played in the crime, obstruction of justice and factors related to number of victims.

For instance, an offense level decreases by four if a defendant played a minimal role in the offense. If an offender attempted to obstruct justice to affect the outcome of a charge or case, the offense level rises by two. If an offender knew that a victim was especially vulnerable because of a mental disability or age, the offense level goes up by two.

If a defendant is convicted of more than one criminal offense, the guidelines provide direction on imposing a combined offense level. Rules for combined offense levels allow incremental penalties for additional criminal behavior. The guidelines use the most serious offense as the baseline for the sentence, and the punishment is increased according to other charges.

Potential Effects of Accepting Responsibility

A defendant accepting responsibility for a crime by pleading guilty can also play a role in determining the offense level. A judge has discretion to decrease the offense level by two if the judge believes the defendant has accepted responsibility for the alleged crime.

As judges consider whether to deduct offense levels, they can consider several factors, including whether the defendant honestly admitted to the role played in the crime. In addition, a judge may consider whether the defendant pled guilty to the offense and made restitution prior to a guilty verdict.

For offense levels of 16 or above, judges can lower the offense level by one if the prosecution enters a motion stating that an early guilty plea from the defendant conserved resources of the government and the court that were not used for a trial.

Determining the Sentencing Guideline Range

The criminal history of a defendant can play a prominent role in sentencing under the guidelines. Each offender is assigned to one of six categories according to their criminal histories.  Individuals with the least-serious criminal records are classified as Category I, while those with long criminal records typically receive a Category VI designation.

The range for sentencing a defendant is determined by the point of intersection between the total offense level and the defendant’s criminal history category. Judges use a sentencing table to determine where the two factors intersect. For example, a level-19 offense committed by a defendant with a Criminal History Category of I would receive a sentence of 30 to 37 months imprisonment. For a crime at Offense Level 21 by an offender at Criminal History Category VI, the sentence would be 77 to 96 months imprisonment

Mitigating and Aggravating Circumstances

Once the sentencing range has been determined, a judge can consider mitigating or aggravating circumstances for which the Sentencing Commission did not account when it created its guidelines.Aggravating or mitigating circumstances can lower the final sentence above or below the range stipulated by the guidelines, but a judge who does not follow the guidelines must describe the reason in writing. If the final sentence is higher than the guidelines would dictate, the defendant can appeal the decision.  The government can appeal if the sentence is lower.

Work With a Knowledgeable Criminal Defense Attorney

If you are convicted of a federal crime, your sentence will be determined in part by the combination of your criminal history categorization and the offense level assigned to the crime for which you have been convicted. To protect your rights and ensure that you receive the most favorable categorization possible under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, work with an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Contact Attorney Michael J. Petro for a consultation.

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