11 Apr 23

How Do The Federal Sentencing Guidelines Work?

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Last Updated on: 15th August 2023, 07:31 am

Understanding Federal Sentencing Guidelines

When it comes to determining the length of a prison sentence for federal crimes, judges use Federal Sentencing Guidelines. These guidelines have been set by Congress to establish both minimum and maximum time of imprisonment based on specific predetermined criteria.

The Seriousness of the Crime

One of the most critical factors in determining the length of a sentence is the severity of the crime. The sentencing guidelines offer up to 43 levels of offense that can result in either less than a month’s imprisonment or put an individual behind bars for life.

To pinpoint how serious an offense is, judges begin with a base level. The current guideline has 43 different base levels with each base offense carrying its own stipulated sentencing range. For example, trespassing would have a base level 4 while kidnapping carries a base level 32.

However, it is important to understand that these base levels are simply starting points, and they can be adjusted up or down based on relevant circumstances. The judge will assess certain identified characteristics surrounding any particular offence before adjusting the sentence length accordingly.

For instance, fraud has a 7-base-offense-level guideline sentence but doesn’t equate if similar sentences were given between someone involved in just $6,000 fraud and another charged with $50,000 fraud. If we consider degree loss between these cases where $6k is considered as low category loss and $50k as high category loss; then there should be an adjustment of at least two or six offense levels increase respectively so as to generate proper indictments for both felonies under consideration.

Robbery has a 20-base-offense-level guideline sentence. However, if the offender had used a gun during the robbery process they would add an additional 5 levels to that initial base offense level, thus bringing the offense level to 25 points.

Another instance is when a robber uses a weapon during this process, even if there was no resulting or immediate injury or death at that point; in such instances, the judges may add seven offense levels to the base level. As may be expected, this will lead to an increased guideline range pointing towards a significantly lengthy sentence.

Adjustments in Offense Level

Despite precise and detailed guidelines, the respective judge has some discretion when it comes down to determining the sentence based on specific offenses committed by an individual.

For instance, multiple convictions on different counts which usually come up together with associated charges will likely receive stiffer sentences as each conviction usually adds up to individually indicted count for persecutor’s use.

Judges can opt to increase or decrease these offense levels depending on certain jargons presented in court cases such as criminal history record assessment results or plea agreements coupled with sincere apologies before trial verdicts are put forth.

Criminal History

The second important factor that determines the overall length of imprisonment is Criminal History. The past criminal record of an offender plays a crucial role in sentencing decisions. Based on this particular criterion alone; the judge assigns each defendant one Category from I – IV.

Category I applies when someone has no criminal history whatsoever; while Someone with an extended rap sheet featuring numerous crimes will gain category 6 status. As expected, those who belong high up among categories have higher chances of receiving lengthy sentences.

Let me elaborate further by illustrating using two people involved in robbery crime and brandishing weapons during their operation will get more years added to their prison term despite being prosecuted for same level of crime due to different prior convictions held within separate categories.

Guideline Range

When it comes time for sentencing after all relevant scoring and adjustments have been made; the length of the defendant’s term is determined in months.

The guideline table proposed by the Federal Sentencing Commission offers an easy-to-understand visual aid to these decisions; laying out specific columns enumerating criminal history levels I – IV as well as 43 rows indicating base offense level of 1-43 points in severity.

Upon intersection between respective criminal history category and crime level for consideration, one can calculate constructive imprisonment time. Using our previous examples considered earlier, we could have computations looking like this:

Person A:

Criminal History: Category I

Offense Level: 25

Guideline Range for Category I and Offense Level 25 is between a minimum of 57 months to a maximum of 71 months of imprisonment.

Person B:

Criminal History: Category VI

Offense Level: 25

Guideline Range for Category VI and Offense Level 25 would be between a minimum of $110 to a maximum $137 months of imprisonment.

The Final Verdict

Federal Sentencing Guidelines exist primarily to offer consistency and bring about equitable outcomes across different crimes presented under U.S Courtrooms. Despite being set at standard levels generally accepted across judicial centers throughout the nation, Judges may free up their hands from these guidelines ranges under express declarations; which may arise when determining that particular cases fall beyond normal expected scenarios or other concerns stemming from counsel’s presentation.

In doing so however, they must provide reasons explaining why such departures have occurred on record such that appropriate assessments are still maintained within valid reasoning avoiding any unfavorable rulings against parties concerned.

Sentencing Guidelines for Federal Crimes

Sentences imposed on federal crimes are majorly based on the federal sentencing guidelines. These guidelines form the foundation for federal sentencing in numerous cases. They provide the basic standard on which the reasonableness of any imposed federal sentencing is judged. According to statistics, more than 75% of the sentences imposed by federal courts in the last quarter of 2014 fell within the recommendations of this particular guideline. The United States Sentencing Commission drafts these guidelines. These guidelines are purposed to help direct the sentencing of persons who have committed crimes in moths in relation to the crime they have committed. The federal sentencing guidelines are based on three critical parts. These are;

The criminal history of the accused

The number of months an accused person is sentenced to stay in a federal prison hugely relies on their criminal history according to the federal sentencing guidelines. If the accused has never committed any crimes prior to that particular one, they are recognized as a criminal history category one. On the other hand, if the accused has previous committed numerous crimes, they are recognized as a criminal history category six. According to the federal sentencing guidelines, the punishment in months goes higher the more the criminal history the accused has.

The kind of crime the accused has committed

The federal sentencing guidelines also take into consideration the kind of crime the accused has committed. Each crime has a different offense level depending on its severity. For instance, if the crime committed is bank fraud, the offense level will be a little less than murder. The offense level will still have to put bank fraud ahead of other less severe crimes and below more severe crimes like espionage and murder.

Departures and adjustments

Departures and adjustments from the federal sentencing guidelines are allowed to happen to a given range depending on a number of factors. For instance, if an accused person happens to plead guilty to their crimes, they can have several levels off their offense level. This translates to somewhat fewer months in a federal prison. On the other hand, if victims of the offender’s crimes are many, levels get added to their crimes, and this translates to more months in a federal prison. For more information on this departures and adjustments, click here.

You should keep in mind that according to the Supreme Court, the federal sentencing guidelines are not mandatory. The judge is not required to follow these guidelines when issuing a sentencing for a federal crime. Despite this, they form a foundation for which many judges issue out their sentences. As mentioned earlier, the majority of judges still issue their sentencing based on these guidelines. There are several other factors that despite not being the basis of federal sentencing guidelines, they still influence how the work. These are;

The role of the accused in the offense

The federal sentencing guidelines also puts into consideration the role of the accused in the crime of conviction. There are five sections considered in this criterion, these are:

  • Aggravating roles
  • Mitigating roles
  • Abuse of position of trust and use of special skill: As the accused, you are likely to get a two-level enhancement to your offense if you are convicted of abusing a position of public or private trust or a special skill. The same enhancement of offense level applies if the position of trust, for instance, impersonation of an attorney or doctor, was obtained through deception.
  • Use of a minor: If you as the accused is proven to have directed, commanded, encouraged, intimidated, solicit, or trained a minor below the age of 18 years to commit a crime you will get a two-level enhancement in your sentencing. This guideline does not take into consideration whether you were aware of the minor’s age as the accused or the minor was aware that they were committing a crime.
  • Use of body armor in a crime of violence or drug trafficking: For more information on this subject, click here.

The guidelines allow for the adjustment of the accused’s crime level depending on their level of participation in that particular offense. This adjustment doesn’t apply if the offense of conviction is a one-person crime or if the accused is of average culpability for the crimes involving more than one offender. Furthermore, there is an increase of four offense levels if you as the accused are a leader of large criminal endeavor – with five or more participants – or its organizer. If you were among the managerial subordinates – including managers and supervisors – you will be handed three levels increase in your offense.


If any of the crimes that you have been accused of fall under the more than 41 crimes defined as terrorism then you will land a 12-level enhancement in your sentencing according to the federal sentencing guidelines. The guidelines instruct that the offense level for this crime must add up to 32 and criminal history set to category five.