George F. Hildebrandt
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Federal Sentencing Guidelines: A Primer

All crimes charged in federal court are governed by the United States Sentencing Guidelines ("guidelines"). These guidelines are created by the United States Sentencing Commission, which was created by Congress in the 1980's. The Guidelines were created in an attempt to equalize the wide disparity of sentences of similarly situated offenders.

How Do the Guidelines Work?

The guidelines are, essentially, a mathematical equation that takes into account several factors:

  • The seriousness of the crime
  • The defendant's criminal history
  • Other related adjustments
  • Additional aggravating or mitigating factors known as departures

Every crime starts with what is called a "base offense level." This is the numeric value assigned to the specific crime by the Guidelines regardless of the specific details involved in the defendant's case. It is important to note the base offense level is just a starting point; the final offense level can increase or decrease based on the seriousness of the actual crime committed. For example, while the base offense level for possessing child pornography is 18, this level is greatly increased in the vast majority of child pornography cases based on the age of the child involved, the number of images and use of a computer.

Once the base offense level has been calculated, the Guidelines take into account any factual or defendant-specific adjustments that are necessary. These additional adjustments can either add to or subtract from the defendant's adjusted offense level. For example, individuals who are found to play a major role in a crime may face an increase in their base offense level. On the other hand, those who accept responsibility for their crime and plead guilty may received a reduction in their offense level.

Next, the defendant's criminal history will be calculated. The Guidelines take into account how many criminal convictions the defendant has and the sentence imposed.

Once all of these considerations are taken into account, (base level, criminal history, specific offense characteristics) the defendant's final offense level is calculated. This final number will translate into a specific guideline range on the Sentencing Table that details a minimum and maximum number of months the defendant should face for the conviction.

Outside of adjustments, a defendant's final offense level can again be adjusted by either an upward departure or a downward departure. Departures are otherwise understood as aggravating or mitigating factors that warrant increased or decreased punishment based on the unique acts of the defendant, and that are not otherwise taken into account by the Guidelines. For example, if the defendant offered substantial assistance to the government, the government can move for a downward departure in an attempt to reduce the defendant's sentence.

Are the Guidelines Mandatory?

No. As of 2005, the guidelines are no longer mandatory. Rather, the guidelines are advisory, meaning federal judges must look at the calculations when considering what sentence to impose.

If you have been charged with or convicted of a crime in federal court, it is important to understand how the judge will determine your sentence. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you understand how the Guidelines and other factors will affect your sentence if convicted, and use that knowledge to help you obtain the best outcome. Contact George Hildebrandt today to help you establish what strategy is best for you.

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