Sentencing in Federal Court – Know What to Expect

July 2018

When facing a federal criminal charge the best outcome is to have the case dismissed. The second best outcome is to be found not guilty by a jury. However, if someone is convicted of a federal charge, they will then be sentenced by the judge – meaning the judge will decide how long that person will be incarcerated. In federal court, in many cases, judges have little flexibility in the sentences that they hand out. Here’s what you can expect.


Federal crimes are governed by federal sentencing guidelines. These are calculations that judges use to determine the sentence for a federal crime. While these can be complicated, there are two main factors that can help you prepare for the type of sentence you might be facing. Those factors are: seriousness of the crime and your prior criminal history.

 

Seriousness of the Crime

Each federal crime is assigned to one of the 43 categories of crimes. The less serious the offense, the lower the category number. For example, premeditated murder has a base level of 43, the highest-level offense. Burglary of a residence, however, is a base level of 17.  Once the base level has been determined, the judge may adjust the offense level, either higher or lower, depending on the specific facts of the case and any adjustments that may apply. Some of these factors include how much property is stolen, whether a firearm was displayed or discharged, the level of participation of the defendant and many others. If you are facing a federal sentence, make sure your attorney has all of the relevant facts – there may be significant factors that could lead to a reduction of the sentence.
 

Criminal History

In addition to the seriousness of the crime, the judge will look at your criminal history. Criminal histories are broken down into 6 categories based on sentence length for past crimes and how recent those crimes were. Those with minimal or no criminal history will be placed in Category I and those will the most extensive will be placed in Category VI.

 

Calculating the Sentence

Once the court has determined the seriousness of the crime and the relevant criminal history, the court will determine the sentencing range based on where those two numbers intersect on the sentencing guidelines chart. The judge can, however, increase or decrease the sentence from this point. If there are aggravating factors, the judge can increase the sentence. Similarly, if there are mitigating factors, the judge can decrease the sentence. Again, we can’t emphasize enough how important it is to make sure your attorney has all of the information to fight for the lowest possible sentence.

We know that being charged with a federal crime, or any crime for that matter, can be overwhelming and scary. We are here to walk you through the process and help you understand what to expect at each step of the way. If you are facing a criminal charge, give us a call today for a free consultation.