Sentencing Hearing

Federal Sentencing Hearings

Suppose you plead guilty or are found guilty at trial of a federal crime. Then, your case will be set for a sentencing hearing, and the judge will impose a sentence.

The sentencing hearing is crucial; your defense lawyer must be adequately prepared. The federal district court judge will confirm that you have read and understand the contents of the Presentence Sentencing Report (PSR) and any attached addendum. The PSR is crucial, and it will also follow you into the Federal Bureau of Prisons and define the type of prison you sent.

Under Rule 32 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, if your attorney can show "good cause," the court could allow objections to the report or sentencing recommendation, where the court will resolve any issues with the PSR. Notably, however, most disputes will be resolved before sentencing, and both sides will agree on the accuracy of the PSR.

The judge will ask the defense lawyer if they want to speak on your behalf. Once they have argued why the recommended sentence should or should not be imposed, the judge will ask if you wish to speak. You have the right to speak to the court, but you can waive the privilege.

Next, the judge will ask the Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) if they want to say anything at sentencing. Often, they will not say anything unless some statements were made that they believe were incorrect.

Typically, the federal judge has already determined a sentence in their mind, and the AUSA knows this and will not likely challenge them. Finally, the victim of the crime will be allowed to speak to the court before sentencing.

Sentencing Hearing – Quick Facts

There are some essential facts you should know about federal sentencing hearings, such as the following:

  • Most defendants are out of custody on bond before sentencing.
  • The federal judge decides the punishment for your crime.
  • The hearing is held in the same federal court where you pleaded guilty or were convicted by the jury.
  • The sentencing hearing will be held separately, usually about three months later.
  • After the judge has announced the sentence, they must prepare a "judgment of conviction," which has plea information or the jury's verdict.
  • The judgment of conviction must also contain all the specifics about your sentence, including the prison term ordered.
  • After your sentencing hearing, you might be immediately committed to the Attorney General's custody for the period the judge determined.
  • Your lawyer could ask the court to allow you to personally surrender yourself to the institution to which you have been designated.

How Are Federal Sentences Determined?

At the sentencing hearing, a federal judge considers many factors that are provided under 18 U.S.C. 3353, such as the following:

  • The type and circumstances of the offense,
  • The history and characteristics of the defendant,
  • Prior criminal record,
  • The need for the sentence imposed to reflect the seriousness of the crime,
  • Other mitigating factors.

In addition to these factors, the recommended federal sentencing guidelines range, while not mandatory, is a crucial factor that judges consider to decide the appropriate sentence.

How Are Federal Sentences Determined?

18 U.S. Code 3553 imposition of a sentence says, “The court shall impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes outlined in paragraph (2) of this subsection. The court, in determining the particular sentence to be imposed, shall consider—

(1) the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant;

(2) the need for the sentence imposed—

(A) to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the crime;

(B) to afford adequate deterrence of criminal conduct;

(C) to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant and

(D) to provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care, or other correctional treatment in the most effective manner;

(3) the kinds of sentences available.”

What is a Presentence Investigation Report?

The presentence report (PSR) is a document prepared by a United States Probation Officer designed to give the federal district judge the information to determine an appropriate sentence.

The PSR is often lengthy and includes information on the facts of the case and your biographical information. It also consists of the probation officer's calculation of your sentencing guidelines.

The probation officer will want to meet with you for an interview to prepare for this report, which should be done in the presence of your attorney. Before the PSR is finalized, you will receive a draft to review with your attorney.

One of the reasons it takes time between your guilty plea or verdict and the sentencing hearing is that an agent with Pretrial Services has to write this PSR report, which includes your personal information, such as:

  • Employment history,
  • Education,
  • Family,
  • Childhood,
  • Health-related issues, and
  • Any alcohol or drug addictions.

It will also include information about the victim, such as financial losses and how much restitution should be ordered. Once drafted, the defense and prosecutor will have several days to respond to the agent with objections or proposed revisions to the report. After hearing oral arguments from both sides, the judge will resolve any issues in the report at the sentencing hearing.

What is a Sentencing Memorandum?

In most federal criminal cases, federal prosecutors and defense lawyers will submit sentencing memoranda to the court arguing in favor of their requested sentence. These documents usually include legal arguments regarding the following:

  • Sentencing guidelines,
  • Expert reports,
  • Character letters or
  • Other mitigating evidence,
  • Address any disputes with the PSR.

Since the sentencing hearing is relatively short, the sentencing memorandum submitted on your behalf is critical.  An experienced federal sentencing attorney will know what information about the offense and the individual being sentenced should be included for the judge to consider. 

The Sentencing Hearing

After submitting the PSR and sentencing memoranda, the case will go before the judge for a sentencing hearing. The defense attorney, prosecutor, and victims will be offered a chance to speak to the judge about the level of punishment.

Federal Sentencing Hearing

Both sides will attempt to convince the judge why you should get a reduced or increased sentence. The federal prosecutor will have the first chance to provide statements to the judge, followed by the defense attorney. Federal criminal lawyers usually help you prepare any statements you give the judge.

The role of the judge at federal sentencing commonly significantly impacts custody time and other terms you will face at sentencing. Thus, having skilled counsel is crucial for the best chance of a favorable outcome.

If either side does not agree with the sentencing decision, they can appeal the sentence, which can be argued to the Circuit Court of Appeals that the judge made a legal error in calculating your sentence or it was too long.

What Are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

The United States Sentencing Guidelines have a framework that recommends a range of months in prison for a defendant using several metrics and any relevant aggravating and mitigating factors. Notably, these guidelines are merely advisory for the sentencing court.

There are also enhancements a prosecutor can use to enhance a federal sentence, especially in drug cases, such as the following:

A defense lawyer could also argue for a reduced sentence based on the following:

Federal judges have broad authority to vary from the guidelines range by imposing more or less custody time. Judges are guided by the equitable factors in Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 3553(a), which include the following:

  • History and characteristics of the defendant,
  • Impact of sentencing on the defendant's dependents,
  • The need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities between similarly situated defendants,
  • The need to provide victim restitution.

Most defendants do not receive the maximum possible sentence. Judges analyze the guidelines recommendation, Section 3553(a) factors, and consider the arguments to determine an appropriate federal sentence.

Having a highly experienced federal criminal defense lawyer during the sentencing hearing is critical to effectively arguing against a harsh sentence. We offer a free case evaluation. The Hedding Law Firm is located in Los Angeles, California.

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