Federal Sentencing Guidelines

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 or cooperation with the government. 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

Are Federal Criminal Defendants Punished More Harshly?

One huge thing that many people don't realize is that the federal scheme is set up very harshly when it comes to sentencing.  Across the board, sex crimes, drug crimes, white-collar crimes, and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines put people in a bad position in many of these cases.

This is especially true where people have many drugs or are involved with many images related to child pornography and where people are involved in stealing money.  The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are set up to give them months in federal prison.

That's why finding a federal criminal defense attorney is sometimes very difficult for people because federal crimes are a little more complicated than state crimes to defend.  Therefore, most criminal defense attorneys do not practice federal criminal defense.  They only practice state criminal defense.  So, be leery of someone who does not have federal experience.

You need an attorney who's been down the road that you're going to travel, no matter what type of a case you have, because of the harsh punishments that the federal government doles out.  

A perfect example is somebody who gets a year in the county jail on a state case in Los Angeles and will probably only do 2 or 3 months or less. But, at the same time, somebody who gets a year at the federal level will serve 85% of that time, no matter what.  So that gives you one little idea of the difference between the state and federal sentencing schemes.

Additionally, all sorts of enhancements apply to cases – whether it be a sex crime, a drug crime, a white-collar offense – any federal crime – they can always add additional time on the back of your sentence based on the aggravating factors and circumstances of your case.   So, you've got to get someone who has experience.

The answer to whether federal defendants are punished more harshly is an absolute yes.  But, if you've got the right attorney, you will put yourself in the best position. 

How Do The Sentencing Guidelines Work In A Federal Court?

Once you hire an attorney, you must meet with him or her to look at the sentencing chart for the crime you are accused of. If you have no criminal history, then you are going to be at criminal history level one.

If you have a criminal history, then you are going to be in a different position and your sentence is going to be much higher than someone without a criminal history. Looking at the chart, you will get a feel for how sentences are handled in federal cases.

The bottom line is that you are going to need a criminal defense attorney to explain where you fall on the sentencing chart, as far as what your base offense level is, whether there are any special enhancements, and if there is any downward departure that can be used to knock your sentence down. For example, you get an automatic three levels off for accepting responsibility.

Do Most Federal Cases Even Go All The Way To Trial?

Most cases do not go to trial, especially federal cases, because the federal government is rather sophisticated. They are going to take their time to investigate, and they are going to try to get the best evidence possible. In most cases, they have the evidence to prove the case, and there is no defense, so there is no need for the case to go to trial. You would be better off accepting a plea agreement. You control whether your case goes to trial, not your attorney or the prosecutor.

Why Do I Need An Attorney Who Specifically Handles Federal Cases To Take My Case?

Someone who handles state cases is not necessarily going to know exactly how to handle a federal case. The language is different, and the sentencing is different than a state case. In federal cases, the prosecutors are much more sophisticated than those in a state case.

Their investigations are much more thorough, and motions are handled differently. You need an attorney who has done federal work before, knows how to get the best possible result, and knows what it takes to litigate these cases and negotiate with the prosecutors.

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