Advantages of Federal Sentencing Guidelines

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 What Are Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

If a person is convicted of a crime in federal court, a federal judge decides the person’s sentence. The federal Sentencing Guidelines play a large role in the judge’s decision-making process. These Guidelines suggest punishments based on the level of the crime, which is assigned by the Guidelines, and the defendant’s history of prior criminal convictions.

The Guidelines are not binding on the courts, although many federal judges use them as a basis for the sentences they pronounce. Federal Sentencing Guidelines are somewhat controversial, but have two main advantages.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission publishes the U.S. Federal Sentencing Guidelines. They establish a uniform policy for sentencing defendants convicted of felonies and serious (Class A) misdemeanors in U.S. federal courts. The Guidelines do not address less serious misdemeanors and infractions.

Originally, the Guidelines were meant to be mandatory. However, in 2005 in the case of United States v. Booker, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Guidelines violated the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. For this reason, the provision of the law that made the Guidelines mandatory was deleted. The upshot of the Booker decision and others is that the Guidelines are now advisory only. Federal judges must consider the Guidelines when deciding on a sentence, but they are not required to issue sentences that fall within the Guidelines.

What Are the Advantages of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

First, the federal Sentencing Guidelines make sentencing more fair. The Guidelines ignore such factors as the race, economic status, the educational achievements of the defendant or any other extraneous factor unrelated to the nature of the crime and the criminal history of the defendant. This has helped limit undesirable sentencing disparities that result when irrelevant factors can influence a criminal sentencing decision.

The other major advantage of federal Sentencing Guidelines is that they make criminal sentencing more predictable and objective. Before the introduction of the Guidelines, the sentences that were imposed by different judges varied widely. The Guidelines, which are available for anyone to study, have made the process of federal sentencing more open and consistent and less mysterious.

How Do the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Work?

The Guidelines determine sentences based mostly on two factors:

  • The conduct associated with the offense, which produces the level of the offense;
  • The criminal history, or criminal record, of the defendant.

There is a Sentencing Table in the Guidelines that shows how these two factors interact. The offense level and category of criminal history are paired. For each pairing of level and criminal history, the Table specifies a range in months for the sentence. A federal court may sentence a defendant within that range.

For example, for a defendant convicted of a level 22 offense with a criminal history category of I, the Guidelines recommend a sentence of 41 to 51 months (3.4 to 4.25 years). If, however, a defendant with a lengthy criminal history of VI is convicted of the very same offense in the same manner when the same Guidelines apply, the recommended sentence is 84 to 105 months (7 to 8.75 years). So the fact that a defendant has a more extensive criminal history means that the defendant could be sentenced to twice the amount of time in prison as a defendant convicted of the same crime who has a minimal criminal history.

There are 43 offense levels. The offense level for a defendant convicted of a particular crime is determined by looking up the offense in the Guidelines and applying the applicable adjustments specified.

There are six criminal history categories. Each category is associated with a range of criminal history points. Thus, for example, a defendant with 0 or 1 criminal history points would be in Criminal History Category I, while a defendant with 13 or more criminal history points would be in Criminal History Category VI.

Three criminal history points are added for each prior conviction for which a sentence of imprisonment of more than one year and one month was imposed. Two points are added for each prior conviction for which a sentence of imprisonment of at least sixty days but not more than 13 months was imposed. And 1 point is added for each prior conviction for which a sentence of less than sixty days was imposed.

Two points are added if the defendant committed the crime for which they are being sentenced while serving another criminal sentence. And this is true whether the defendant was sentenced to probation, parole, supervised release, imprisonment, work release, or was a prison escapee when they committed the subsequent offense.

Two 2 points are added if the defendant committed the then-instant offense less than two years after release from imprisonment on a sentence of sixty days or more or while in prison or while an escapee from a prison.

The guidelines require taking into account prior sentences of diversion imposed on the defendant when they were an adult, if the sentences involved a judicial finding of guilt or the defendant’s admission of guilt in open court. This reflects a policy that defendants who previously benefited from an opportunity for rehabilitation who then commit more crimes should not be shown any additional lenience.

There are four sentencing zones, i.e., A, B, C, and D. Zone A consists of sentencing options in the range of 0 to 6 months. Zone B comprises sentencing ranges above Zone A but with a maximum penalty of 15 months. Zone C consists of sentencing ranges above Zone B, but the maximum Zone C penalty is 18 months or less. Zone D consists of sentencing ranges above those in Zone C.

A defendant in Zone A is eligible for probation, and does not have to serve any time in prison. Probation is also authorized if the range shown in the Guidelines falls within Zone B of the Sentencing Table and the court imposes a condition or combination of conditions requiring intermittent confinement, community confinement, or home detention. At least one month of the Zone B sentence must be served in prison. Defendants in Zone C must serve a minimum of half of their sentence in prison.

So, from these details of the federal Sentencing Guidelines, it can be seen that sentencing under the Guidelines is, in effect, a science that depends on a limited set of factors rather than the unpredictable and subjective reaction of a judge to a particular defendant. Why a particular sentence is imposed in a case can be clearly understood from studying offense levels, criminal histories and zones. Extraneous, possibly prejudicial factors have been eliminated from the process.

Are There Any Crimes to Which the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Do Not Apply?

As noted above, Class B and Class C misdemeanors are two types of crimes that the Guidelines do not cover. Class C misdemeanors are minor offenses such as traffic or parking violations. Class B misdemeanors usually cover somewhat more serious crimes, such as shoplifting or vandalism. The recommended punishments for these sorts of crimes are not found in the federal Sentencing Guidelines.

Do I Need A Lawyer for Help with Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

If you have questions about federal sentencing guidelines, you need to consult a criminal defense lawyer. An experienced criminal defense attorney can explain the Sentencing Guidelines and tell you how they may affect you. If you are facing criminal sentencing in a federal court, you would do well to have a criminal defense lawyer represent you during the sentencing process.


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