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Montana Federal Sentencing Guidelines

March 29, 2024

Montana Federal Sentencing Guidelines: What You Need to Know

If you’re facing federal charges in Montana; you’re probably feeling stressed out, right? Don’t worry – our federal criminal defense lawyers have got your back. We deal with these kinds of cases every single day.First things first, let’s talk about the Montana federal sentencing guidelines. These guidelines basically determine how much time you could be looking at if you’re convicted. They’re pretty dang important; so pay close attention, ’cause this stuff can get a bit complicated.

What Are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

The federal sentencing guidelines are; rules that judges use to determine sentences for people convicted of federal crimes. They’re designed to make sentencing more consistent and fair across different courts.Basically, the guidelines take into account:

  • The offense level (how serious the crime was)
  • Your criminal history
  • Aggravating/mitigating factors

Then based on that info, they provide a sentencing range that the judge is supposed to stick to unless there are special circumstances.Now, these guidelines aren’t mandatory anymore after a Supreme Court ruling in 2005. But judges still use ’em as a starting point most of the time.

How Do They Calculate Sentences?

Okay, so here’s a quick rundown of how federal sentences get calculated using the guidelines:

  1. Offense Level: Every federal crime gets assigned a “base offense level” based on how serious it is. More serious = higher level.
  2. Then they adjust that level up or down based on:
    • Specific offense characteristics (like if a weapon was used)
    • Your role in the offense (were you the ringleader?)
    • Any victim-related factors
    • Obstruction of justice
    • Acceptance of responsibility (did you plead guilty?)
  3. Criminal History: Next, they calculate your “criminal history score” based on your past convictions and sentences. More/longer priors = higher score.
  4. The Sentencing Table: They use your final offense level and criminal history score to find the recommended guideline range on a big sentencing table.

For example, let’s say your final offense level is 22 and your criminal history category is III. According to the sentencing table, the guideline range would be 51-63 months in federal prison.Of course, that’s just a basic example. Calculating the actual guidelines for a real case can get way more complicated with all the adjustments and whatnot.But you get the basic idea – higher offense level and more serious criminal record generally means more time. The guidelines try to make things more standardized and consistent.

Pros and Cons of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Like most things in life, the federal sentencing guidelines have some pros and cons:Pros:

  • More consistency and fairness in sentencing
  • Reduce unwarranted disparities based on things like race, gender, socioeconomic status
  • Provide transparency – everyone knows what to expect
  • Allow for “real offense” sentencing based on actual conduct
  • Attempt to achieve proportionality in sentencing


  • Can be too harsh and inflexible in some cases
  • Complicated calculations can be prone to error
  • Doesn’t account well for individualized factors
  • Compromises judicial discretion
  • Tends to transfer power to prosecutors (through charge bargaining)

There’s been a lot of debate over whether the guidelines are a good or bad thing overall. Personally, I think they have some benefits in terms of consistency. But they can also lead to overly harsh sentences in certain situations.At the end of the day, they’re just guidelines though. Judges can depart from them if there’s a good reason. Having an experienced federal defense lawyer who understands how to argue for departures and variances is crucial.

Departures vs. Variances – What’s the Difference?

This is an important distinction when it comes to federal sentencing:departure refers to imposing a sentence outside the calculated guideline range based on specific departure provisions listed in the guidelines manual.For example, the guidelines allow for departures if:

  • The victim’s conduct was unusually provocative
  • You had diminished mental capacity
  • You played a minimal role as a minor participant
  • The crime caused aberrant behavior that was a one-time thing

variance on the other hand, is when the judge varies from the guidelines based on factors not necessarily covered by a specific departure provision. Variances are allowed under the Supreme Court’s Booker decision.Some common reasons for variances include:

  • Your history and characteristics
  • Nature and circumstances of the offense
  • Avoiding unwarranted sentencing disparities
  • Providing just punishment

So in a nutshell – departures are based on provisions in the guidelines themselves, while variances allow judges more flexibility to go outside the guidelines based on broader factors.Having a good lawyer who can make persuasive arguments for why a departure or variance is warranted in your particular case is absolutely crucial.

Federal Sentencing in Montana – What to Expect

Okay, now let’s get into some of the specifics for federal cases in Montana.First off, Montana is part of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. So any sentencing decisions from the 9th Circuit apply.According to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in fiscal year 2021:

  • 68.5% of sentences in the 9th Circuit were within the guideline range
  • 24.8% were below the range (either a departure or variance)
  • 6.7% were above the range

So the majority of sentences do fall within the calculated guidelines, but there’s certainly room for departures and variances in appropriate cases.As for specific offenses, some of the most commonly prosecuted federal crimes in Montana include:

  • Drug trafficking
  • Firearms offenses
  • White collar crimes like fraud
  • Crimes in Indian Country
  • Immigration offenses

The sentencing ranges can vary widely depending on the details. But just to give you a rough idea, here are some example guideline ranges for common federal offenses:Drug Trafficking

  • Less than 5 grams of meth = 6-12 months
  • 50-200 grams of meth = 63-78 months
  • 1.5+ kilos of meth = 235-293 months


  • Less than $6,500 loss = 0-6 months
  • $95,000-$150,000 loss = 18-24 months
  • $3.5+ million loss = 97-121 months


  • Unlawful possession = 12-18 months
  • Discharging during drug trafficking = 120 months
  • Armed Career Criminal = 188-235 months

Again, those are just general examples. The actual range depends on the specific facts of the case.Now as far as the judges and prosecutors you may be dealing with in Montana, it’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of how harsh they tend to be with sentencing:

  • The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Montana has a reputation for being pretty aggressive, especially with drug and violent crimes.
  • Some of the federal judges in Montana like Judge Christensen are seen as more prosecution-friendly when it comes to sentencing.
  • But you also have judges like Judge Molloy who are viewed as being more lenient and willing to vary from the guidelines in appropriate circumstances.

So it really depends on the specific judge, prosecutor, and facts of your case. Having an experienced Montana federal criminal defense lawyer who knows the local landscape is crucial.At the end of the day, the federal sentencing guidelines are just one factor that goes into determining your sentence if convicted. But they’re an extremely important factor that can have a huge impact.Let’s discuss some potential strategies for getting a more favorable sentence…

How to Get a Lower Sentence – Strategies to Consider

Look, nobody wants to go to federal prison. So if you’re facing charges, doing everything possible to avoid a long sentence should be priority #1.While the guidelines can be draconian at times, there are a number of strategies your lawyer can potentially use to argue for a lower sentence:Acceptance of ResponsibilityThis is a big one. If you plead guilty and clearly demonstrate that you’ve accepted responsibility for your actions, the guidelines allow for a 2-3 level reduction in your offense level.That may not sound like much, but it can make a significant difference. For example, going from a level 22 to 19 could mean the difference between 51-63 months and 30-37 months.Substantial Assistance DepartureIf you provide “substantial assistance” to the government’s investigation by snitching on your co-defendants or other criminals, the prosecutor can request a downward departure below the guideline range.How much of a reduction you get depends on the extent and significance of your cooperation. But it can potentially allow for a very low sentence or even no prison time at all in some cases.Safety ValveFor certain drug cases that don’t involve violence, there’s a “safety valve” provision that allows judges to go below the mandatory minimum sentence if:

  • You have a very limited criminal history
  • You didn’t use violence, threats or weapons
  • The offense didn’t result in death/serious injury
  • You weren’t an organizer, leader or manager
  • You told the government everything you know

This can be a huge benefit for getting a lower sentence in non-violent drug cases.Fast TrackIn districts with a lot of immigration cases, some offer a “fast track” program where defendants can get a 1-4 level reduction for pleading guilty quickly. Montana doesn’t have an official fast track, but the concept can sometimes apply.Departures/VariancesAs discussed earlier, there are various grounds for departing from the guidelines or varying outside the range based on specific offense or offender characteristics.Things like:

  • Aberrant behavior
  • Victim’s conduct
  • Coercion/duress
  • Mental/emotional issues
  • Family/community ties
  • Age (if very young or elderly)
  • Post-offense rehabilitation efforts

A skilled lawyer will scrutinize every possible avenue for a departure or variance argument.Booker/GallThanks to the Booker and Gall Supreme Court decisions, judges have more flexibility to vary from the guidelines based on the general 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) sentencing factors like:

  • Nature and circumstances of the offense
  • History and characteristics of the defendant
  • Purposes of sentencing (punishment, deterrence, etc.)
  • Unwarranted disparities among defendants

Booker/Gall opened the door for more judicial discretion in sentencing. An experienced lawyer can make strong arguments for a reasonable sentence under 3553(a).Third Party AssistanceIn some cases, getting assistance from a third party “voice of reason” can help sway the judge towards a lower sentence.For example:

  • A respected psychologist or counselor discussing your mental health issues
  • A minister or community leader vouching for your good character
  • An employer willing to give you a job upon release
  • Family members able to provide a strong support system

Having respected members of the community advocate on your behalf can go a long way.Sentencing MemorandumThis is a crucial document your lawyer will submit arguing for a specific sentence lower than the guidelines based on all the mitigating factors in your case.It’s an opportunity to present a persuasive narrative about who you are as a person, what you’ve been through, why you made the mistakes you did, and why you deserve a second chance.The best lawyers will craft a compelling sentencing memorandum that humanizes you and punches holes in the guideline calculation.

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