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What Impact Does a Criminal Record have on Federal Sentencing?

Unlike Texas state law, the process of determining a criminal sentence in a federal case is much more complex. While state statutes typically offer the judge a sentencing range to choose from, federal law uses complex systems of federal sentencing guidelines to set the amount of punishment for those found guilty of a federal crime.

These federal sentencing guidelines rely on a variety of factors. These factors can include the identity of the victim, the existence of other counts, and whether or not the defendant accepts responsibility for their actions. Another important factor that goes into sentencing is the defendant's criminal history.

For the most part, a previous criminal record will certainly increase a defendant's potential sentence. In cases where an individual qualifies as a repeat offender, these penalties can be substantial. It is important to remember that you could avoid these penalties entirely by prevailing at trial. Discuss your defense options with Houston federal defense attorney Doug Murphy.

How Criminal Records Factor Into Federal Sentencing

A defendant's criminal history will play an important role in their sentencing for two reasons. The first reason is that the federal guidelines take criminal history into account. When determining a sentence, the court will select a prison term based on the level of the offense as well as the criminal history score. The second is that an extensive criminal history can result in repeat offender enhancements.

Criminal History Score

Every defendant in a federal case is given a criminal history score during sentencing. There are six categories of criminal history, each of which carries steeper penalties. A defendant in the lowest criminal history score will face a notably lighter sentence compared to a defendant in the highest category.

There are multiple rules that combine to form the criminal history score. Felony convictions are always worth a certain number of points, while certain misdemeanors are not counted. There are also points awarded for suspended sentences. A lower number of points are assessed for juvenile offenses.

There are some other unique guidelines to consider. Convictions in foreign or tribal courts do not count, and the guidelines give less weight to older convictions in some cases. While the guidelines do not count expunged or vacated convictions, they do assess points for general court-martial sentences.

At sentencing, these points are tallied to provide the final sentencing score. The judge will then apply the sentence that corresponds to the category the defendant falls in.

Career Offenders

Federal sentencing guidelines also apply differently to defendants with a long track record of convictions. In certain cases, a defendant's criminal history could be so robust that it may trigger so-called "career offender" enhancements.

Career offender status is only available in certain types of cases. A defendant 18 years of age or older will only be labeled a career offender when they are facing sentencing for federal drug trafficking or violent crimes. The career offender status applies to any defendant with two prior violent crime or drug trafficking convictions. These convictions can occur in either state or federal court, and any combination will count. For example, a person facing a prosecution for a violent offense in federal court could be labeled a career offender if they have two state-level drug trafficking convictions.

The violent offenses that apply under this statute include:

  • Any crime that involved the use or threat of violence as one of its elements,
  • Any crime involving arson, extortion, the use of explosives, or burglary, or
  • Any crime involving conduct that presents a serious risk of injury.

The courts generally require each prior offense to occur out of a separate course of conduct. In other words, a conviction of two counts of drug trafficking from the same arrest will likely only count as a single prior offense for purposes of identifying career offenders.

The Impact of Career Offender Status

Anyone with career offender status will face the steepest penalties available in many cases. This is due to two important factors that come with this status. First, career offenders will be charged with the highest level of the relevant offense regardless of the facts of the case. Federal crimes come in levels, with more serious charges carrying steeper crimes. Career offenders will always face the penalties associated with the most severe crimes.

This is not the only impact of career offender status, however. Career offenders will also see their criminal history category increased to Level VI, the highest level of criminal history score. This is true even if a defendant's natural score would not reach that level on its own. This means a career offender will always face the stiffest penalties for each offense.

Together, these two aspects of career offender status have a dramatic impact on the sentence a defendant could face. By facing the highest criminal history score in combination with the most serious offense, a defendant could face the maximum possible penalties in many cases.

Defense Options for Career Offenders

There is little leeway when it comes to career offender options. That said, there are countless other factors that go into determining a federal sentence. A Houston federal crimes lawyer can still play an important role in defending a career offender.

The first and most important factor is the potential to avoid a conviction entirely. By winning at trial, a person who would otherwise face career offender status could avoid a conviction altogether.

If a conviction occurs, an attorney could attempt to mitigate the sentence in other ways. Mitigating factors are still available when sentencing a career offender, and establishing those to the court could prove valuable to a defendant.

Departures, Variances, and the Safety Valve

While most sentences in federal cases fall within the range provided by the sentencing guidelines, there are some exceptions worth noting.

The most common ways for the court to deviate from the sentencing guidelines are known as departures and variances. These two functions are similar, in that they empower the court to go below or above the sentencing range in certain circumstances. Departures are more limited, as the court can only use them when the sentencing guidelines manual allows for it. Variances are allowed under the court's sentencing power, but they must still be reasonable based on the facts of the case.

Finally, there is another option known as the "safety valve." Drug trafficking offenses carry mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment, but federal judges can make use of the safety valve provision in federal law to hand down a lighter sentence than the mandatory minimum. This is only available for non-violent offenders in low-level cases.

The Sentencing Reform Act

The designation as a career offender is only one of the changes brought about through the Sentencing Reform Act. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 is only a part of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act passed the same year. The purpose of the Sentencing Reform Act was to bring consistency in the sentencing of federal crimes.

The career offender designation is only a small part of the Sentencing Reform Act. The Act also made major changes to the way sentences were handled, including the elimination of parole. The Act also created the Federal Sentencing Commission.

Abolishing Federal Parole

Prior to 1987, parole was available to many defendants convicted of federal crimes. Parole allowed these defendants to leave prison early in exchange for meeting certain requirements. This typically involved staying out of trouble, avoiding alcohol or drug use, and complying with a parole officer. Parole was often earned with good behavior or cooperation with other investigations.

This system changed after the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act. The Act eliminated the parole system entirely for any crimes committed after November 1, 1987. Crimes committed before this date remained eligible for parole.

Congress eliminated the possibility of federal parole after complaints regarding its unpredictable outcome. While a federal parole board oversaw the process, it was not uncommon for defendants to be released after serving only a fraction of their sentence. These changes to the law were authored during a time when cracking down on crime was a common theme among lawmakers.

Despite the end of federal parole, the courts still have options. They can sentence a defendant to supervised release, which is similar to parole. The major difference is that it occurs after the formal sentence is completed. In some cases, the court could also grant time off for good behavior. Inmates showing "exemplary" behavior could knock off as much as 54 days off their sentence each year.

Federal Sentencing Commission

The Sentencing Reform Act also created the United States Sentencing Commission in 1984. An independent agency, the Commission falls under the broad umbrella of the judicial branch. The primary role of the Commission is to create and update the sentencing guidelines federal courts rely on.

Prior to the Commission creating the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the courts used indeterminate sentencing similar to that used in state courts. These former guidelines gave courts minimum and maximum sentencing ranges but allowed them significant leeway within this range.

The Commission is made up of seven members. Each member is appointed by the President of the United States and must be confirmed by the Senate. Their terms are for six years, and each Commissioner may be re-appointed once. At least three of these commissioners must be federal judges. The makeup of the Commission cannot include more than four members of the same political party. The United States Attorney General sits on the Commission but does not have a voting interest.

Contact Our Houston Federal Defense Attorney

Sentencing for a federal crime has the potential to be severe, regardless of whether you are designated as a career offender. In either case, it is vital you discuss your defense options with an attorney right away.

Attorney Doug Murphy has built a career on fighting for those accused of federal crimes. An experienced criminal defense trial lawyer, Doug Murphy is never afraid of facing the federal government head-on. Not all defense attorneys are the same. To discuss your options with a dedicated federal defense lawyer, contact the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. right away at 713-229-8333.

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