A criminal justice system without punishments for people convicted of crimes would be pointless. Such a system could conclude that someone was guilty, but would not have the ability to do anything about it. Most people would not view the system as just and the system would do little to deter anyone else from committing crimes in the future. For this reason, every criminal justice system that humans have ever devised has some scheme in place for punishing those found guilty. See Sentencing Table below.
In the United States, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines is the scheme most often used to punish people convicted of federal crimes. However, that has not always been the case. The guidelines were first adopted in 1987. Before then it was mostly up to each individual judge to decide how to punish criminals convicted in the judge’s court. This led to a wide disparity in sentencing. People convicted of a crime in one judge’s court would often face a much shorter or longer prison sentence than people convicted of the same crime in another judge’s court. The basic idea behind the Federal Sentencing Guidelines is that similar crimes committed under similar circumstances should be punished similarly.
The federal sentencing guidelines provide rules to federal judges to consider when they are sentencing a person for a federal crime. The guidelines are designed to provide federal judges with consistent and fair ranges of sentences to consult when they are determining how long a prison sentence should be. These guidelines are not mandatory to be followed. But a federal judge who desires to impose a sentence that deviates from the guidelines must explain the decision in writing.
How The Federal Sentencing Guidelines Work
For the sentencing guidelines to achieve the goal of uniformity in sentencing between federal courts, there has to be a way that judges can use them to determine how long a convicted person should be imprisoned under the circumstances of the particular case. This is done by using a table that tells judges what the appropriate sentencing range is for different crimes. The table takes two primary factors into consideration:
- The severity of the crime, and
- The criminal history of the convicted.
Both of those factors need further explanation.
The Severity of the Crime
Every federal crime that is a felony or a Class A misdemeanor has an offense level associated with it. Lesser felonies are not a part of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. There are 43 offense levels in the guidelines. The higher the level, the more severe the crime is considered to be and the longer the prison sentence suggested by the guidelines is. For example, the guidelines suggest that someone convicted of a Level 1 offense should receive a prison sentence between zero and six months but someone convicted of a Level 43 offense should receive a sentence of life in prison.
In addition to the base offense levels, every type of offense carries a certain number of offense characteristics. These factors can raise or lower the base offense level and can affect the sentences. Here are some examples:
- A house burglary or theft offense level begins at 17 and increases based upon the amount of property stolen. If the burglary led to the loss of $2500+ of property, an additional level is added. If the loss was more than $800k, five levels are added.
- Robbery has a base offense level of 20. But if a gun was displayed in the robbery, there is an increase of five. This brings the total level to 25. But if the firearm was fired during the robbery, there is an increase of seven levels.
Adjustments are factors that may apply to any offense and can raise or lower the offense level. These are broken down as victim related adjustments, what the offender’s role was in the offense, and obstruction. Examples:
- If you minimally participated in the crime (such as if you were the getaway driver for a bank robbery), the offense level will decrease by four.
- If the offender knew the victim was vulnerable because of mental condition or age, the offense level is increased by two.
- If you obstructed justice, the offense level is raised by two.
If you are convicted for several federal crimes, the sentencing guidelines feature instructions on how the judge can reach a combined offense level. The guidelines have incremental punishment for major additional criminal behavior. The most serious federal offense is the starting point. The other federal counts will determine whether to and how much to boost the offense level.
Adjustments for Acceptance of Responsibility
The last step to determine the offense level under the sentencing guidelines involves whether you have accepted responsibility. The federal judge can decrease the offense level by two if in his or her opinion, you have accepted responsibility for the crime. To decide whether this deduction should be granted, judges may consider whether you admitted to the crime; paid restitution before a guilty verdict was issued; or pled guilty.
If you have an offense level of 16 or more, the judge can drop the offense level by one more, if the government makes a motion that your guilty plea allowed the government to use fewer resources before the trial.
The Criminal History of the Convicted
One of the principles behind the Federal Sentencing Guidelines is that repeat offenders should be given longer prison sentences than people convicted of fewer prior criminal acts. To achieve this points are awarded for every prior conviction. The number of points awarded for each conviction can get technical and complicated but some examples are:
- 1 point is given for each prior conviction that resulted in a sentence of less than 60 days.
- 2 points are given for each prior conviction that resulted in a sentence between 60 days and 13 months.
- 3 points are given for each prior conviction that resulted in a sentence greater than 13 months.
All the points are added up and the total is used to determine the Criminal History Category of the convicted person. The Guidelines have six different criminal history categories. They are expressed in roman numerals with Category I having the fewest points and Category VI having the most points.
Using the Sentencing Table
Once the offense level and the criminal history category are determined, using the Sentencing Table is easy. The criminal history categories are listed on the top and the offense levels are listed on the left. The sentence that should be imposed is listed where the two intersect on the table. For example, someone with a criminal history category of I convicted of a criminal offense of level 8 should be sentenced to between zero and six months in prison. However, someone convicted of the same level 8 offense but with a criminal history category of V should be sentenced to between 15 and 21 months in prison.
Zones, Adjustments and Departures
The Federal Sentencing Guidelines also allow judges to deviate from the suggested sentence in particular cases. The sentencing table lists sentences in four different zones: A, B, C, and D. People who fall into Zone A can be given probation without having to serve any time in prison. People who fall into Zone B must serve at least one month in prison, but are eligible to serve the remainder of their sentence in alternative confines, such as home detention. People who fall into Zone C must serve at least half of their total sentence in prison, but can serve the other half in alternative confines.
Judges also have the leeway to impose greater or lesser prison sentences if the circumstances warrant deviating from the guidelines. Someone who assists in the prosecution of other defendants might receive a lesser sentence than that suggested by the sentencing table. However, someone who used a deadly weapon while committing the crime might receive a greater sentence than that suggested by the sentencing table. There are many other reasons that a judge might deviate from the guidelines in a particular case.
Finally, it is important to understand that the use of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines is not mandatory as the United States Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Booker that the guidelines violate the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. However, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are still used and judges who use them to impose sentences on those convicted of federal crimes are presumed to have ruled reasonably, which makes it more difficult to get a sentence overturned on appeal.
Criticisms of Federal Sentencing Guidelines
Some of the common criticisms of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are:
- The guidelines are too complicated, inflexible, severe and are much more so on all three counts than the guidelines that other jurisdictions in the US have written.
- The process that created the guidelines through the Federal Sentencing Commission is less open. Representative and open than the procedures US states followed to establish reforms that are similar.
- Some defense attorneys, probation officers and prosecutors have negotiated dispositions that adjust or even get around the guidelines to produce more reasonable sentences that will not be appeal. Thus, a disparity of sentencing is developing between those who follow the federal guidelines and those who view them as unjust.
- Federal sentencing guidelines do not save work or money. Also, revising, developing and administering the guidelines is costly.
- The guidelines are not producing equal punishment for defendants. By focusing mostly on the crime and previous criminal history, rather than the case circumstances, unjust results are produced.
- The guidelines particularly for drug offenses have resulted in different treatment based upon the defendant’s race.
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Federal Sentencing Guideline Cases
- Cocaine Dealer Sentenced to At Least 15 Years in Federal Prison – A cocaine dealer in Portland, OR was sentenced this week to 16 years in prison. James E. Duckett, 39, was described by federal prosecutors as the leader of the Portland gang North Side Mafia Crips. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines for this crime, given the man’s history, was between 15.5 and 19.5 years. But his defense attorney blasted the sentence and said it was severe. His attorney argued for a five or 10 year sentence. He added the Sentencing Commission had pulled numbers from the air and set very high sentences for drug dealers.
- Man Pleads Guilty to Four Counts of ID Theft, Bank Fraud and Conspiracy – Reynaldo Martinez, 25, pleaded guilty last week to four counts of identity theft, bank fraud, transportation of stolen goods and conspiracy. He faced 88 years in prison but the defense and prosecutors agreed to a lesser sentence of four years, three years of supervised release and restitution of $38,000. His attorney thought that considering the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, four years was a fair sentence.
- Bank Robber Pleads Guilty to Crimes in NV, CA and UT – A man from Utah has pleaded guilty to robbing three banks in Nevada, California and Utah. Gregory J. Brown admitting to robbing the banks, and writing demand notes on index cards and in one note stated he had a gun. He faces 20 years in federal prison under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.