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California Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Understanding the California Federal Sentencing Guidelines

So you or someone you know has been convicted of a federal crime in California and is facing sentencing. You‘re probably wondering – what kind of sentence can be expected under the federal sentencing guidelines? How do these guidelines work exactly? Don‘t worry, we’ll break it all down for you.The federal sentencing guidelines are a set of rules that aim to provide certainty and fairness in sentencing by avoiding unwarranted disparities among defendants with similar criminal records who have been found guilty of similar crimes. While they are no longer mandatory after the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Booker6, the guidelines still play an important role and judges must consider them when determining a sentence.

How the Guidelines Work

At their core, the guidelines provide recommended sentencing ranges based on two key factors:

  1. The seriousness of the crime (the “offense level”)
  2. The defendant’s criminal history (the “criminal history category”)

These two factors 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 of the two factors provides the recommended sentencing range, in months of imprisonment.14For example, a defendant convicted of a level 22 offense with a criminal history category of I would have a recommended sentence of 41-51 months under the guidelines. But a defendant convicted of that same level 22 offense with a more extensive criminal history in category VI would have a much higher recommended sentence of 84-105 months.14

Determining the Offense Level

There are 43 offense levels in the guidelines.14 The offense level is determined by looking up the crime in Chapter 2 of the Guidelines Manual and making any applicable adjustments:

  • First, find the base offense level for the specific crime
  • Next, add levels for any aggravating factors, such as the amount of loss in a fraud case
  • Then, subtract levels for any mitigating factors, such as acceptance of responsibility1

Let’s say a defendant is convicted of bank robbery, which has a base offense level of 20 under §2B3.1 of the guidelines.8 The offense level would then be increased based on specific offense characteristics like:

  • If the loss exceeded $20,000, increase by 1-7 levels depending on amount
  • If a firearm was discharged, increase by 7 levels
  • If any victim sustained bodily injury, increase by 2-6 levels depending on seriousness of injury
  • If any person was abducted to facilitate commission of the offense, increase by 4 levels 8

So a bank robbery involving a $50,000 loss (+2), where a firearm was discharged (+7), and a victim suffered permanent bodily injury (+6) would have an offense level of 35 (20+2+7+6).After determining the offense level, the next step is to calculate the defendant‘s criminal history category.

Determining the Criminal History Category

There are six criminal history categories (I-VI) based on the number of criminal history points.14 Points are added for prior sentences of imprisonment as follows:

Christine Twomey
Christine Twomey
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Guerline Menard
Guerline Menard
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Keisha Parris
Believe every single review here about Alex Z!! From our initial consultation, it was evident that Alex possessed a profound understanding of criminal law and a fierce dedication to his clients rights. Throughout the entirety of my case, Alex exhibited unparalleled professionalism and unwavering commitment. What sets Alex apart is not only his legal expertise but also his genuine compassion for his clients. He took the time to thoroughly explain my case, alleviating any concerns I had along the way. His exact words were “I’m not worried about it”. His unwavering support and guidance were invaluable throughout the entire process. I am immensely grateful for Alex's exceptional legal representation and wholeheartedly recommend his services to anyone in need of a skilled criminal defense attorney. Alex Z is not just a lawyer; he is a beacon of hope for those navigating the complexities of the legal system. If you find yourself in need of a dedicated and competent legal advocate, look no further than Alex Z.
Taïko Beauty
Taïko Beauty
I don’t know where to start, I can write a novel about this firm, but one thing I will say is that having my best interest was their main priority since the beginning of my case which was back in Winter 2019. Miss Claire Banks, one of the best Attorneys in the firm represented me very well and was very professional, respectful, and truthful. Not once did she leave me in the dark, in fact she presented all options and routes that could possibly be considered for my case and she reinsured me that no matter what I decided to do, her and the team will have my back and that’s exactly what happened. Not only will I be liberated from this case, also, I will enjoy my freedom and continue to be a mother to my first born son and will have no restrictions with accomplishing my goals in life. Now that’s what I call victory!! I thank the Lord, My mother, Claire, and the Spodek team for standing by me and fighting with me. Words can’t describe how grateful I am to have the opportunity to work with this team. I’m very satisfied, very pleased with their performance, their hard work, and their diligence. Thank you team!
Anthony Williams
Anthony Williams
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Bee L
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divesh patel
divesh patel
I can't recommend Alex Zhik and Spodek Law Firm highly enough for their exceptional legal representation and personal mentorship. From the moment I engaged their services in October 2022, Alex took the time to understand my case thoroughly and provided guidance every step of the way. Alex's dedication to my case went above and beyond my expectations. His expertise, attention to detail, and commitment to achieving the best possible outcome were evident throughout the entire process. He took the time to mentor me, ensuring I understood the legal complexities involved to make informed decisions. Alex is the kind of guy you would want to have a beer with and has made a meaningful impact on me. I also want to acknowledge Todd Spodek, the leader of the firm, who played a crucial role in my case. His leadership and support bolstered the efforts of Alex, and his involvement highlighted the firm's commitment to excellence. Thanks to Alex Zhik and Todd Spodek, I achieved the outcome I desired, and I am incredibly grateful for their professionalism, expertise, and genuine care. If you're in need of legal representation, look no further than this outstanding team.
  • Add 3 points for each prior sentence exceeding 1 year
  • Add 2 points for each prior sentence of 60 days to 13 months
  • Add 1 point for each prior sentence less than 60 days
  • Add 2 points if the instant offense was committed while under any criminal justice sentence like probation or parole
  • Add 1 point for each prior conviction for a crime of violence that did not receive points for some other reason 6

So a defendant with two prior convictions, one for which he served 18 months in prison and another for which he served 3 months, would have 5 criminal history points (3 + 2) placing him in Category III.

The Sentencing Table

With the offense level and criminal history category determined, the guidelines sentencing range can be found on the sentencing table:Federal Sentencing TableThe sentencing table is divided into four “zones” (A-D). Zones A-C authorize various sentencing options discussed below as alternatives to imprisonment.14

Sentencing Options Under the Guidelines

While the guidelines provide recommended ranges of imprisonment, they also allow for sentencing options other than a straight prison term within certain ranges.


For some first-time offenders convicted of non-violent offenses, a sentence of straight probation with no term of imprisonment is possible if their sentencing range is in Zone A of the sentencing table (i.e. an offense level of 8 or below).5Probation sentences typically involve conditions such as:

  • Regular reporting to a probation officer
  • Maintaining employment
  • Participating in substance abuse or mental health treatment
  • Restrictions on travel and association with certain persons
  • Fines and restitution13

If the terms of probation are violated, the defendant can be resentenced to the guideline term of imprisonment.

Split Sentences

For other offenders, a “split sentence” of a short prison term followed by a term of supervised release or probation is an option if their sentencing range falls within Zones B or C of the sentencing table.5For example, a Zone B sentence might be “one month imprisonment followed by five months of supervised release with a condition of community confinement or home detention.”14 This allows the defendant to spend a brief period in prison followed by a more rehabilitative period of supervision in the community.


For more serious offenses with sentencing ranges in Zone D of the table, the only option is a term of imprisonment. The guidelines provide a range of months within which the judge may sentence the defendant, such as 30-37 months or 110-137 months.14If sentenced to imprisonment, the defendant will serve his time in a federal prison designated by the Bureau of Prisons. Factors like the offense, criminal history, and any history of violence or escape attempts will determine the security level of the designated facility, ranging from minimum to high security.13There is no parole in the federal system, but inmates can earn up to 54 days per year off their sentence for good behavior. They may also qualify for a sentence reduction of up to one year by completing the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP).13

Departures and Variances

While the guidelines aim to provide certainty in sentencing, they also allow some flexibility for the judge to impose a sentence outside the recommended range in certain circumstances. This can happen through a “departure” or a “variance.”


A departure is a sentence outside the guideline range based on a specific guideline provision allowing it.6 Some common grounds for upward or downward departures include:

  • Substantial assistance to authorities (§5K1.1)
  • Coercion and duress (§5K2.12)
  • Diminished capacity (§5K2.13)
  • Voluntary disclosure of offense (§5K2.16)6

The guidelines manual contains policy statements governing departures in Part K of Chapter 5. If the judge departs from the guidelines, he must state the specific reasons for doing so.6


A variance is a sentence outside the guidelines range based not on a specific guideline provision, but on the general sentencing factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).6 These factors include:

  • The nature and circumstances of the offense and history and characteristics of the defendant
  • The need for the sentence imposed to reflect the seriousness of the offense, promote respect for the law, provide just punishment, afford adequate deterrence, protect the public, and provide needed training or treatment
  • The kinds of sentences available
  • The sentencing guidelines range
  • Any pertinent policy statements
  • The need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities
  • The need to provide restitution to victims16

After calculating the guidelines range, the judge must consider these §3553(a) factors to determine whether a variance outside the range is warranted. Common reasons for variances include a defendant’s extraordinary rehabilitation, family circumstances, or over-representation of criminal history.6

Appellate Review

Another key feature of the guidelines is appellate review of sentences. Both the defendant and the government have the right to appeal a sentence under certain circumstances.If the sentence is within the properly calculated guidelines range, it can only be appealed if it was imposed in violation of law, as a result of an incorrect guidelines calculation, or is plainly unreasonable.6If the sentence is outside the guidelines range, it can be appealed as too high by the defendant or too low by the government. The appellate court will review whether the departure or variance was reasonable in light of the §3553(a) factors.6This appellate review helps ensure that the guidelines are being applied properly and consistently by district courts. Reversal of a sentence on appeal is rare, but it does happen in cases of clear error or unreasonableness.

Special Sentencing Considerations

There are a few situations where the guidelines call for special sentencing considerations beyond the basic offense level and criminal history calculation.

Career Offender

Defendants designated as “career offenders” under §4B1.1 are subject to very severe guidelines ranges approaching the statutory maximum for their offense, based on their history of violence or drug trafficking.5To be a career offender, a defendant must be at least 18 at the time of the instant offense, the instant offense must be a felony crime of violence or controlled substance offense, and the defendant must have at least two prior felony convictions for crimes of violence or controlled substance offenses.5So even a defendant convicted of a relatively low-level federal drug offense can face a guidelines range of 30 years to life if he has two prior drug convictions. The career offender guideline is one of the most severe in the guidelines system.

Mandatory Minimums

Some federal offenses carry mandatory minimum sentences set by statute, such as 5, 10, or 20 years for certain drug offenses.16 When a count carries a mandatory minimum, the guidelines sentence cannot be less than that minimum, even if the guidelines calculation would otherwise call for a lower sentence.16The only way a defendant can be sentenced below a mandatory minimum is if:

  1. The government files a motion for a lower sentence due to the defendant’s “substantial assistance” to authorities; or
  2. The defendant qualifies for the “safety valve” under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) by having a minimal criminal history, not using violence or possessing a firearm, and providing truthful information to the government.16

Absent one of those circumstances, the court must impose the mandatory minimum sentence.

Consecutive vs. Concurrent Sentences

When a defendant is convicted of multiple counts, the guidelines provide rules for whether the sentences run consecutively (one after the other) or concurrently (at the same time).If the counts are “grouped” under the guidelines because they involve the same harm, the sentences typically run concurrently. But if there are multiple groups of counts, or if a statute requires consecutive sentences, then the sentences may be partially or fully consecutive.17The guidelines contain a detailed system for calculating the total punishment in a multiple-count case in Part D of Chapter 3. The court may also consider the §3553(a) factors in determining whether to impose consecutive or concurrent sentences in a particular case.

Plea Bargaining and the Guidelines

In the vast majority of federal cases, the defendant pleads guilty rather than going to trial. And in most of those cases, the plea is the result of a plea agreement between the prosecution and defense.The guidelines play a central role in federal plea bargaining. The parties may agree to a specific sentence or sentencing range as part of the plea agreement, but that sentence must be consistent with the guidelines unless the court accepts the agreement as a “variance” based on the §3553(a) factors.6More commonly, the plea agreement will specify certain guidelines factors that the parties agree or disagree on, such as the offense level, criminal history score, or applicability of certain enhancements. The court is not bound by the parties’ agreements on these issues, but will typically give them significant weight.6In some cases, the plea agreement may include a “stipulation” to a particular guidelines range, or an agreement that neither party will seek a sentence outside that range. These “stipulated guidelines” plea agreements are essentially an agreement to a specific sentence, just phrased in guidelines terms.6The guidelines also provide some incentives for defendants to “accept responsibility” by pleading guilty. Defendants who plead guilty and express genuine remorse can receive a 2 or 3-level reduction in their offense level under §3E1.1.1 This can make a significant difference in the ultimate sentence.Of course, pleading guilty is not right for every defendant. Those with a strong defense may choose to take their case to trial. And some defendants may simply not be willing to admit guilt, even if it means a longer sentence. But the guidelines create a strong incentive for most defendants to seek a plea deal.

The Role of the Probation Officer

In the federal system, probation officers play a key role in the sentencing process. After a defendant pleads guilty or is convicted at trial, the case is assigned to a probation officer who conducts a presentence investigation and prepares a presentence report (PSR).The PSR contains a detailed account of the offense conduct and the defendant’s criminal history, as well as personal information about the defendant’s background and circumstances. It also includes a calculation of the guidelines range and any grounds for departure.1The probation officer submits the PSR to the court and the parties before sentencing. The parties then have an opportunity to object to anything in the PSR they disagree with. Probation officers wield significant influence over the ultimate sentence through their guidelines calculations and factual findings in the PSR.At the sentencing hearing, the judge will typically adopt the factual findings in the PSR unless they are disputed. The judge may hear arguments from the parties on any objections and will rule on any disputed guidelines issues.1The probation officer’s role does not end at sentencing. They are also responsible for supervising offenders on probation and supervised release after imprisonment. They monitor the offender’s compliance with release conditions and may report any violations to the court.1In this way, probation officers are involved at every stage of a federal criminal case, from the initial investigation through sentencing and post-conviction supervision. Their knowledge of the guidelines and close relationship with the court make them powerful players in the system.

Criticisms and Proposed Reforms

The federal sentencing guidelines have been the subject of much criticism and calls for reform over the years. Some of the main critiques include:

  • Severity: The guidelines, particularly for drug offenses, are seen by many as overly harsh and punitive. They have contributed to a massive increase in the federal prison population.9
  • Rigidity: The guidelines are complex and detailed, with many required enhancements that limit judicial discretion. Some argue they are a “one-size-fits-all” system that doesn’t allow for individualized sentencing.9
  • Disparity: Despite the guidelines’ goal of reducing disparity, studies have found continuing disparities based on race, gender, and geography in federal sentencing.9
  • Trial Penalty: The guidelines create a significant difference between sentences after trial and sentences after a guilty plea, which some argue coerces defendants to waive their trial rights.9

There have been some reforms to the guidelines over the years. The Supreme Court’s Booker decision made the guidelines advisory rather than mandatory.6 The Commission has also reduced the guidelines for crack cocaine offenses to reduce the disparity with powder cocaine.9Other proposed reforms include:

  • Expanding the “safety valve” to allow more non-violent drug offenders to avoid mandatory minimums
  • Reducing the severity of the drug guidelines in general
  • Eliminating the trial penalty by not awarding “acceptance of responsibility” credit for pleading guilty
  • Simplifying the guidelines to give judges more discretion9

Ultimately, the guidelines remain a central part of the federal criminal justice system. While they are no longer mandatory, they still heavily influence sentencing decisions. And for better or worse, they have shaped the way federal practitioners approach cases for over three decades now.

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