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Arkansas Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Understanding Arkansas Federal Sentencing Guidelines

The Basics of Federal Sentencing Guidelines

First off, what exactly are sentencing guidelines? In the federal court system, judges use guidelines to determine the appropriate punishment for those convicted of crimes. The goal is to promote uniformity and fairness in sentencing. The guidelines provide a range of sentences based on two key factors:

  1. The seriousness of the offense
  2. The defendant’s criminal history

Think of the guidelines as a formula. You plug in the specifics of the case, and out pops a sentencing range. 

Offense Levels

Federal crimes are each assigned an offense level, from 1 (least serious) to 43 (most serious). The level is determined by the base offense, plus any specific offense characteristics. For example, the base offense level for bank robbery is 20. But if a dangerous weapon was used, 3 levels are added. If any victims sustained bodily injury, 2-6 more levels are added. So in reality, most bank robberies are going to be more than a level 20.

Criminal History Points

A defendant’s prior criminal record determines their criminal history category, from I (little to no record) to VI (significant record). Points are assigned for prior convictions, with 3 points for each prior sentence of more than 13 months, 2 points for sentences of 60 days to 13 months, and 1 point for shorter sentences. More points are added if the current offense was committed while on probation, parole, or supervised release, or soon after release from prison.

The Sentencing Table

The offense level and criminal history category are plotted on a sentencing table, with the offense level on the vertical axis and the criminal history category on the horizontal axis. The intersection designates the guideline sentencing range, in months of imprisonment. Let’s look at an example. Say a defendant is convicted of a level 22 offense and has 4 criminal history points (Category III). The guideline range would be 51-63 months in prison.

Departures and Variances

The guidelines are meant to be just that – a guide. Judges can depart from the guidelines if there are mitigating or aggravating circumstances not adequately considered by the guidelines. Judges can also vary from the guidelines based on the factors outlined in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), such as:

  • The nature and circumstances of the offense
  • The history and characteristics of the defendant
  • The need for the sentence to reflect the seriousness of the offense, promote respect for the law, provide just punishment, afford adequate deterrence, protect the public, and provide the defendant with needed training, care, or treatment
  • The kinds of sentences available
  • The sentencing guidelines range
  • The need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities

In deciding the sentence, the judge must consider the guidelines but is not bound by them. The sentence imposed should be “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to achieve the statutory purposes of sentencing.

Christine Twomey
Christine Twomey
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Guerline Menard
Guerline Menard
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Mandatory Minimums and Maximums

For some offenses, Congress has enacted mandatory minimum sentences. This means that no matter what the guidelines recommend, the judge cannot go below the mandatory minimum (except in very limited circumstances). For example, possession with intent to distribute 1 kilogram or more of heroin carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. Even if the guidelines called for a sentence of 70-87 months, the judge would have to impose at least 10 years. On the flip side, every crime also has a statutory maximum penalty. The judge cannot impose a sentence above the statutory maximum, even if the guidelines call for it.

Specific Offenses

Let’s dig into some of the most common federal crimes prosecuted in Arkansas and see how the guidelines typically play out. Remember, these are just general ranges – the specifics of each case will determine the ultimate sentence.

Drug Offenses

Drug crimes are some of the most frequently prosecuted offenses in federal court. The primary factor in determining the offense level is the quantity and type of drug involved. For example, here are the base offense levels for some common drug quantities:

  • 10-20 grams of heroin: Level 16 (21-27 months for a first offender)
  • 50-100 grams of cocaine: Level 16 (21-27 months)
  • 1-2.5 grams of crack: Level 16 (21-27 months)
  • 100-400 grams of fentanyl: Level 30 (97-121 months)
  • 1,000-3,000 kilograms of marijuana: Level 30 (97-121 months)

From there, levels can be added for factors like possession of a dangerous weapon, use of violence, distribution near a protected location, or maintaining a drug premises. Levels can be subtracted for a mitigating role or acceptance of responsibility. Many drug offenses also carry mandatory minimums, especially for larger quantities. For example:

  • 1 kilogram of heroin: 10 year mandatory minimum
  • 5 kilograms of cocaine: 10 year mandatory minimum
  • 280 grams of crack: 10 year mandatory minimum
  • 400 grams of fentanyl: 10 year mandatory minimum

Firearms Offenses

Firearms offenses are another common category in federal court. Some key provisions:

  • Felon in possession of a firearm: Base offense level of 14 (15-21 months), plus 2-10 levels depending on the specifics of the firearm and the defendant’s record
  • Possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking or a crime of violence: Mandatory minimum of 5 years, consecutive to any other sentence
  • Using or carrying a firearm during a drug trafficking crime or crime of violence: Mandatory minimum of 5 years, consecutive to any other sentence (7 years if brandished, 10 years if discharged)

Child Pornography

Child pornography offenses are treated very seriously under the guidelines. Some key provisions:

  • Receipt or distribution: Base offense level of 22, plus 2-7 levels depending on the age of the victim, distribution, use of a computer, and the number and nature of the images
  • Production: Base offense level of 32, plus 2-4 levels depending on the age of the victim, the defendant’s relationship to the victim, and use of a computer
  • Possession: Base offense level of 18, plus 2-4 levels depending on the number and nature of the images

Many child pornography offenses also carry mandatory minimums, such as 5 years for receipt or distribution and 15 years for production.

White Collar Crimes

The guidelines for white collar offenses like fraud, embezzlement, and money laundering are driven largely by the amount of loss involved. The table increases the offense level as the loss amount goes up.For example, a loss of $6,500 to $15,000 adds 2 levels, while a loss of more than $550 million adds 30 levels. So a $10,000 fraud starts at a level 7 (0-6 months), while a $600 million fraud starts at a level 37 (210-262 months). Other factors can increase the level, such as the number of victims, sophistication of the offense, derivation of more than $1 million gross receipts from a financial institution, and role in the offense.

Plea Bargains and Cooperation

In the federal system, the vast majority of cases are resolved through plea bargains. Plea bargains can have a significant impact on the ultimate sentence. In a plea agreement, the prosecution and defense agree on certain factors, such as the amount of loss in a fraud case or the drug quantity in a drug case. They may also agree to a specific sentence or sentencing range.The judge is not bound by the plea agreement, but will usually accept it if it is reasonable. One key exception is that the judge cannot accept an agreed sentence that is below a mandatory minimum, unless the prosecution files a motion for a lower sentence based on the defendant’s “substantial assistance” in investigating or prosecuting others. Cooperating with the government can lead to a significant sentence reduction. If a defendant provides substantial assistance, the prosecution can file a motion under U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1 for a sentence below the guidelines and even below a mandatory minimum.The guidelines lay out some of the factors the court should consider in determining the extent of a reduction for substantial assistance:

  1. The significance and usefulness of the assistance
  2. The truthfulness, completeness, and reliability of the information or testimony
  3. The nature and extent of the assistance
  4. Any injury or risk of injury to the defendant or his family resulting from the assistance
  5. The timeliness of the assistance

Reductions for substantial assistance can be significant, especially in drug cases where mandatory minimums would otherwise apply. It’s not uncommon to see 50% or more off the original guideline range.

Serving the Sentence

Once the sentence is imposed, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) determines where the defendant will serve their time and calculates their release date. Defendants can receive up to 54 days of good conduct time for each year of the sentence served. This means a defendant sentenced to 10 years could be released after about 8 years and 9 months if they have a clean disciplinary record. The BOP can also grant up to 12 months off the sentence for successful completion of the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) for nonviolent offenders with a documented substance abuse disorder.After release from prison, most defendants are placed on supervised release (similar to parole). The court sets the conditions of supervised release, which typically include reporting to a probation officer, maintaining employment, not committing any new crimes, and not using drugs or excessive alcohol. Violations of supervised release can result in being sent back to prison.

Appealing the Sentence

If a defendant believes their sentence is unlawful, they can file an appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Some common grounds for appeal include:

  • The sentence exceeds the statutory maximum
  • The court incorrectly calculated the guideline range
  • The court treated the guidelines as mandatory rather than advisory
  • The sentence is substantively unreasonable

Appeals must be filed within 14 days of the judgment. If the appeal is successful, the case will be sent back to the district court for resentencing.

Compassionate Release and Other Sentence Modifications

In some circumstances, a sentence can be modified after it is imposed. One avenue is compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). This allows the court to reduce the sentence if “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warrant a reduction, such as terminal illness or the death or incapacitation of the caregiver of the defendant’s minor children. The court can also modify a sentence if the defendant was sentenced based on a guideline range that was later lowered by the Sentencing Commission. For example, if a defendant was sentenced for a drug offense and the Commission later lowers the guidelines for that drug quantity, the defendant can move for a reduction if the change would have lowered their guideline range.

The First Step Act

In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act, which brought significant changes to federal sentencing. Some key provisions:

  • Reduced the mandatory minimum penalties for some drug offenses
  • Expanded the “safety valve” provision that allows judges to sentence below the mandatory minimum for nonviolent drug offenders with little to no criminal history
  • Made the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive, which reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences
  • Expanded eligibility for elderly and terminally ill inmates to be released early
  • Increased good conduct time credits from 47 to 54 days per year
  • Required the BOP to provide more programming and productive activities to inmates

The First Step Act applies retroactively to some defendants who were sentenced before it was passed. If you think you or a loved one might be eligible for relief under the First Step Act, consult with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney.

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