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Federal Sentencing Guidelines

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10 Steps To Understanding Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Base Offense Level

The base level offense of the crime must first be determined. The sentencing guidelines provide 43 levels of offense levels; the more serious the crime, the higher the offense level.

Relevant conduct

Base level offense also includes any conduct that involves the same harm. Basically any conduct that is the same course of conduct or within the common scheme/plan of the conduct. To determine the base level offense, relevant conduct also includes all and any foreseeable acts in furtherance of the activity.

Specific Offense Characteristics

Specific offense characteristics refers to things such as whether a deadly weapon was used; whether there was any body injury; whether there was a drawn out plan to commit the crime.

Specific offense characteristics can be based on relevant conduct and can increase the base offense level if for example, a co-defendant’s conduct was foreseeable conduct and the defendant may be held responsible for such conduct, such as carrying a firearm.

Role in the Offense

Depending on the role of the defendant, the base level offense may be raised. If the defendant was the leader, organizer, manager, or supervisor of the crime allegedly committed, there is a 2-4 point increase in the offense level. Vice verse, a minor role will decrease the offense level which decreases the sentence.

Obstruct of Justice

Did the defendant obstruct justice such as commit perjury during trial or engage in a dangerous high speed chase to avoid arrest.

Multiple Counts

If the defendant is convicted of multiple counts, the second count being of equal seriousness, then the offense level is increased by 2 levels. Thus, the marginal increase is reduced as the number of counts increase.

Acceptance of Responsibility

If the defendant shows acceptance of responsibility then 2 levels are knocked off the base offense level.

If the offense level is 16 or higher, then a third reduction is given if the defendant pleads guilty before trial preparation.

Criminal History

Has the defendant served in prison over a year for a prior offense? How about at least 60 days? Was the prior defense a violent felony or a drug felony? The answer to these question make a difference of whether 1, 2, 3 levels may be added to the base offense level.


A motion for a downward departure asking the Judge to modify the sentence making it lower than the statutory minimum may be granted; this is within the Judge’s discretion.

Mandatory Minimum Sentence

There is a mandatory minimum sentence for federal crimes – unless the defendant qualifies for a safety valve. The five requirements to qualify for a safety valve are:

  • no one was harmed during the offense
  • the defendant has little or no history of criminal convictions
  • the defendant did not use violence or guns
  • the defendant was not a leader or organizer of the offense
  • the defendant told the prosecutor all that they know about the offense