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Back to Basics | The Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Every federal criminal statute has a statutory sentencing range. Sometimes an offense may not have a minimum sentence. But in other cases, the minimum sentence could be two, five, or ten years imprisonment. Likewise, some federal criminal statutes have maximum sentences that can range from anywhere from two years all the way up to life imprisonment.

While taking into account the statutory sentencing range, in most cases, a convicted person’s sentence will be subject to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are a set of guidelines created by the United States Sentencing Commission that judges use to determine the appropriate sentence for federal criminal offenses.

The guidelines are advisory, meaning that judges are not required to follow them, but they are generally used as a starting point for sentencing decisions. Key aspects of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines include:

  • Offense level: Each offense is assigned an offense level based on the seriousness of the offense, with higher levels assigned to more serious crimes.
  • Criminal history category: Each defendant is assigned a criminal history category based on their past criminal convictions, with higher categories assigned to defendants with more extensive criminal records.
  • Sentencing range: The intersection of the offense level and criminal history category on the sentencing table determines the recommended sentencing range for the defendant.
  • Departures and variances: Judges can depart from the guidelines if they find that there are aggravating or mitigating circumstances that were not taken into account in the guidelines. They can also vary from the guidelines if they find that a departure is warranted based on the unique circumstances of the case.
  • Mandatory minimums: Some offenses have mandatory minimum sentences, which are required by law and cannot be reduced by a judge.

Federal sentencing law is always changing. Whether the change comes from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the circuit courts of appeal, or the Supreme Court, it is incredibly important to hire an experienced attorney who stays up to date on the law. No two cases are the same, and a number of factors can impact how much time in prison a person is facing.

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