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Former Assistant U.S. Attorney

How federal sentencing guidelines work

On Behalf of | Jun 10, 2020 | Firm News

When facing sentencing after a federal conviction, the judge uses a scale created by Congress. These federal sentencing guidelines take into account the person convicted and the crime itself.

Before a trial begins, it helps to understand how the court reaches a sentence. While the results vary from person and crime, a general overview shows how the basic process works. Learning what a judge uses to dole out a sentence can inform decisions on how to proceed with a defense strategy.

Basic information a judge uses

The first item the judge considers is any prior criminal history and how severe the crime was. If this is the first offense and the crime relatively minor, then the judge may use the base guideline for the crime.

There are 43 levels of sentencing throughout the guidelines. The base level is the first stage of sentencing, and judges usually grant this to first-time offenders for crimes that are not as severe. The higher the level of sentencing, the more advanced and strict the punishment.

Enhancements to punishment levels

Each offense has several levels that the judge looks at to adjust the sentence. The punishment for financial crimes, such as fraud, may depend on the amount of money involved. For something like robbery, the judge considers if the offense involved the use of a weapon. If it was a firearm, then the federal guideline increases considerably.

Deviating from the guideline

A judge does not have to adhere to the federal sentencing guidelines. Congress created them to give the courts a way to gauge the type of sentence that may fit a particular crime. A judge, however, can adjust those sentencing recommendations up or down depending on the exact circumstances of the crime.

Having an idea of the type of sentencing that a crime can involve may prove beneficial to those facing charges. However, keep in mind that the final sentence is up to the presiding judge.