From misdemeanors to felonies, the consequences can be severe if you are convicted of a federal crime. These offenses could lead to time behind bars in federal prison, but each offense does not have a standard sentence. Instead, the courts rely on federal sentencing guidelines to determine the appropriate sentence.
The federal sentencing guidelines are propagated by the federal government. They outline the potential sentences for each conviction and also lay out the factors that can increase or decrease the severity of the standard sentence.
Understanding these guidelines is an important step to determine the potential penalties you may face. However, this information is of limited use without the context a dedicated attorney can provide. To speak with a Houston federal defense attorney about your case, contact the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. right away.
Understanding the Federal Sentencing Guidelines
When the United States Congress enacts new criminal statutes or amends existing law, they set a maximum criminal penalty for each offense. In some cases, they also set a minimum amount of time that must be served. These guidelines create a range of sentencing options. Courts then use the Sentencing Guidelines to determine where in this range of penalties a particular sentence should fall.
These guidelines were first introduced through the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. Originally, courts were required to sentence crimes pursuant to the sentencing guidelines without diversion. In recent years, courts have shifted the rules to require the courts to use these guidelines as only a starting point.
These standards apply evenly across the country. In fact, they were designed in part to prevent the same federal crime from facing widely different penalties in two different parts of the country.
Who writes the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?
While the law setting out the penalty range for a federal crime is up to the legislative branch, these sentencing guidelines are authored by the United States Sentencing Commission. This Commission is an independent agency within the judicial branch. It not only authors and updates the sentencing guidelines, but also advises other branches on sentencing-related matters.
The Sentencing Process
In essence, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are one enormous chart. They apply a recommended sentence based on the intersection of two important factors: the severity of the crime and the criminal history of the defendant.
To address how severe an individual crime is, the Commission has created 43 individual “offense levels.” Every federal offense falls into one of these 43 categories. They range from misdemeanors under federal law to the most serious federal charges available. The higher the offense level, the steeper the penalty will be. For example, first-degree murder falls into offense level 43.
In addition, the Commission also breaks up offenders into six “criminal history categories.” At the lowest end of the spectrum is an individual with no criminal history whatsoever. At the opposite is an individual with a lengthy track record of felony or state offenses.
To make use of these recommendations, the courts must look to the chart to determine where the offense level intersects with the appropriate criminal history category. At each intersection will be a specific prison term that is less than the maximum for the prescribed statute.
The Commission has endeavored to create flexibility by not lumping similar sentences for the most and least severe cases. In general, the Commission attempts to make the lowest level sentence at least 25 percent shorter than the highest recommended penalty.
Even these recommendations provide the court with ample flexibility. Instead of pinpointing the exact amount of time recommended, these guidelines offer a range of months of imprisonment at each level. The courts are free to issue a sentence anywhere within this range without further explaining their rationale.
Combined Offense Level
The guidelines work in a slightly different way for a person facing multiple offenses. This is important given how frequently a defendant will face more than one charge in a given case. After conviction on multiple counts, the guidelines will not simply add up the recommended sentence for every offense. Instead, it creates a recommended sentencing range based on the “combined offense level.”
The combined offense level starts with the most serious charge a person is convicted for. It uses the normal sentencing recommendation as a baseline, but then suggests additional time behind bars for each additional conviction. The end result is typically a recommended sentence higher than a conviction on one count, but lower than simply adding up recommendations for every offense individually.
Acceptance of Responsibility
The court has additional leeway in issuing a sentence below what the guidelines suggest. As a matter of public policy, the courts put a premium on defendants that admit responsibility to their crime. There are different factors a judge can use to make this determination, including admissions from the defendant, the entry of a guilty plea, or even by agreeing to pay the victim restitution for their losses. If the court determines a defendant has accepted responsibility for their actions, the judge may reduce the offense level by two steps for sentencing purposes.
Adjustments to the Sentencing Range
Despite their original intent, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are advisory in nature and not mandatory. The court has the power to adjust a sentence as long as it falls within the sentencing range required by law. However, federal law does require these judges to explain any adjustments from the guidelines. The failure to do so could result in the sentence being overturned on appeal.
The most prominent way to deviate from these guidelines is through the use of mitigating and aggravating factors. Mitigating factors tend to show the defendant deserves mercy while aggravating factors could push a judge to select a tougher sentence. Aggravating and mitigating factors allow a judge to apply a sentence outside of the range provided by the guidelines, but the law requires them to explain their rationale in writing.
There are dozens of mitigating factors that defense attorneys have successfully used to obtain deviations from the federal guidelines. Many of these factors are very specific and only apply to certain federal crimes. With so many potential factors, it is vital to discuss your defense options with an experienced attorney.
There are many mitigating factors that relate directly to federal drug crimes. These factors could relate to the defendant's criminal history, the nature of the drugs themselves or external pressure on the defendant. For example, the court might take into account that a defendant was a small-time dealer who only distributed controlled substances to feed their own habit. The court might also consider leniency if the defense shows the drugs in question were low in purity or the offender had no knowledge of the level of purity of a drug.
Other mitigating factors could involve a defendant's efforts to improve their lives after their arrest. Courts could consider a defendant taking steps to enter drug rehab, boot camp, or seek some form of rehabilitative counseling. The paying of restitution for any damage a defendant caused is also commonly considered by the courts.
Difficulties earlier in life have also played a role as mitigating factors. In some cases, courts have considered the fact the defendant suffered extreme abuse as a child. Other courts have even used a person's status as the elderly or as a Holocaust survivor as a mitigating factor.
On the other side of the ledger, the court can consider aggravating factors that make the case for a sentence above the federal guidelines. These factors are typically put forward by the prosecution.
Aggravating factors typically point to a defendant's propensity for crime. One of the most common forms of aggravating factors is identifying the defendant as a repeat offender. Constantly committing the same crime can be used by the court as evidence that the defendant intends to continue their criminal ways after serving this sentence as well.
The court will also consider the vulnerability of a victim in some cases. While a harsh sentence could occur with any violent crime, the courts are more likely to exceed Federal Sentencing Guidelines when these offenses target small children, the elderly, the disabled, or law enforcement personnel.
In complex criminal acts, the courts will also consider a defendant's role in the crime. In many criminal conspiracies, a single person works as a “mastermind” to spearhead the crime and facilitate how it occurs. The courts are more likely to come down on a person with a leadership role in a criminal enterprise versus someone that was only incidentally involved.
Deviating From the Sentencing Range
In some cases, the court has the ability to depart from the mandatory sentencing range entirely. This deviation is strictly limited in most cases.
Upward & Downward Departures and Variances
There are two functions that allow the court to depart from the sentencing range, and these departures could result in sentences shorter or longer than the guidelines require. These functions are known as upward and downward departures and variances.
The two powers are similar. The court may make a departure from the guidelines only if it is based on policy statements set out in the sentencing guidelines manual. Variances, on the other hand, are allowed based on the court's inherent sentencing power under 18 U.S.C. § 3553.
This distinction is important, as appellate courts have more leeway to overturn departures than variances.
The Safety Valve
Some federal offenses, including many drug crimes, have mandatory minimum sentencing. In a limited number of cases, a statutory provision known as the "safety valve" empowers the court to hand down a sentence lower than the mandatory minimum. The safety valve only applies to federal drug trafficking convictions and is generally only available to non-violent offenders facing low-level charges.
The Importance of a Houston Federal Defense Attorney
When you face federal sentencing for a criminal conviction, you might feel like your fate is already sealed. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that you have the opportunity to show the court that despite the finding of guilt, there are valid reasons why you deserve a degree of leniency.
An experienced and skilled federal criminal defense lawyer can advise you of what to expect during sentencing and advocate for you throughout the process. With their help, you could identify the mitigating factors that could help you reduce your sentence substantially. To discuss how an attorney can help, schedule a free consultation with the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. right away.