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How Sentencing Works in Federal Criminal Cases

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After a conviction in a federal criminal case, the next phase is the sentencing process. To assist judges in handing down punishment and establish consistency, Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act in 1984. This law created the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) within the judicial branch and tasked the agency with developing Federal Sentencing Guidelines for judges. In general, they set out a range of months of incarceration – based upon each category of federal crime and the person who committed it. The Guidelines are extremely complicated and operate on a very case-specific basis, so it’s important to work with a Florida federal crimes defense attorney if your matter has reached the sentencing phase. However, as an overview, you may find it helpful to take a look at the three-part analysis that a judge will undertake.

  1. Identify Guidelines Section and Base Offense Level: The first step is to match up the criminal offense to the most appropriate section of the Guidelines. For some crimes, there will be an exact match. Examples are certain types of drug crimes, fraud, and violent offenses. When there’s no specific mention of the type of crime, a judge will turn to the section that most closely matches.

Within the Guidelines, there may be a single base offense or multiple levels. If two or more are listed, a judge could adjust the offense levels per crime. Grounds for an addition or subtraction may include:

  • The identity, status, or vulnerability of the victim;
  • The number of victims;
  • The defendant’s role in the crime;
  • Whether there are multiple counts in the case; and,
  • Whether the defendant accepted responsibility and/or showed remorse.
  1. Criminal History Score: Just as in a Florida criminal case, your prior history of criminal activity may affect your sentencing in federal court. There are six criminal history categories in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, each of which identifies a sentencing range. If you’re a first-time offender, you’ll fall into category one. For some crimes, your base sentencing range will be 18-24 months. A repeat offender could reach as high as category six, where the same offense could lead to 41-51 months incarceration.
  2. Departures: By law, a judge can depart from the Guidelines on any grounds not already considered or not addressed. Departures may be due to the defendant’s characteristics, including age, education, mental issues, or role in public service. A judge may also make adjustments based upon the offense, therefore:
  • There could be an upward departure – increasing the term of incarceration – if the defendant caused death, bodily injury, or psychological injury to a victim.
  • When the person convicted provided assistance to police in apprehending other offenders, a judge may issue a downward departure – reducing the term of imprisonment.

Discuss Your Case with a Florida Federal Crimes Defense Lawyer

If you or a loved one was convicted in a federal case, you may need additional information on how the Federal Sentencing Guidelines work. Our knowledgeable attorneys can provide you with details, so please contact the Fort Lauderdale federal crime lawyer Kevin J. Kulik. We can schedule a confidential consultation to review your case and offer insight on potential punishment.

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