27 Jul 23

Sentencing & the Federal Sentencing Guidelines

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Last Updated on: 6th August 2023, 06:18 pm

Federal Convictions: An Overview

Convictions on federal charges can be significantly different from state case convictions. The laws are typically more narrowly written and federal judges often do not have the same latitude as judges in state and local criminal cases. They do have some authority to apply the facts of the case in determining the appropriate penalties, but the federal sentencing guidelines must always be applied in the determination. The guidelines for sentencing are a list of considerations for judges when a case is completed or a plea bargain is being negotiated. Some charges at the federal level also carry more punishment based on the classification level, and this surely happens when material case factors are highly egregious. The violations are usually much more serious when the feds are involved anyway, although that is not always the situation. Some cases are largely benign to some extent, as the mere fact that a case includes activity across state lines could make it a case federal even when the criminal acts are misdemeanors or violations. But, it is always good for the defendant to understand how the guidelines can affect the outcome of their case even for simple federal matters.

Federal Misdemeanors

Federal Class A misdemeanor convictions carry the same 12-month maximum sentence as state convictions, but defendants can be held in a state or local facility during the jail term or until a hearing date. Although they are not as serious as felonies, a federal misdemeanor conviction still generates a federal criminal record. Rules for record expungement at a later date can be different also, and fines can be even more excessive. Rules for probation or parole are different as well, which is common with a misdemeanor conviction of a defendant who is a seemingly law-abiding citizen charged with a technicality such as unknowingly trespassing on federal land within a state boundary. Judges must still use federal guidelines in determining the proper punishment, but no penalties are mandatory such as in a state court for certain cases like a DUI. Fines are the most common punishment in misdemeanor cases, and they can be much more extensive than with state punishment. Defendants can also be held in a facility until a hearing when they cannot qualify for bond release.

Federal Felony Sentencing

The same exemption from imposing mandatory sentences exists with felony convictions as with misdemeanors, but federal sentencing guidelines must still be considered to some degree. Judges must clarify when they choose to issue a ruling outside of the recommended considerations, and especially when they impose harsh sentences for particularly egregious acts. Judges must provide specific reasons for the departure, which can then be a component of any appeals procedure if they have erred in their judgement. While state courts have set sentencing standards at a minimum of one year for the lowest level felony, federal sentencing guidelines are set at three years for the lowest level. And, they also include an E classification along with A through D. A Class E felony conviction will result in at least a minimum three-year sentence, with a Class D being a six-year minimum. Maximums for all classes above D can range upwards to 25 years based on the nature of the crime.

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Additional Considerations

Unlike state cases where the judge can only impose a sentence based on the material facts as presented by the prosecutor for one particular case, federal judges can take into evaluation the long-term criminal behavior of the defendant. This can be detrimental to many defendants with a long criminal record regardless of state or federal classification. Serious criminal cases involving violence or serious drug cases commonly can result in maximum sentences and possibly no opportunity for parole. All prisoners sentenced to under 30 years are granted a parole hearing within 120 days, and all subsequent parole board hearings will be conducted between 18 and 24 months for each inmate.

It is important for all defendants to remember that some legal matters can result in both state and federal charges, and the sentencing is all done separately and they are served consecutively. Immigration cases are a primary example of when this can apply, which are very common in regions like New York City. It is vital to have an experienced attorney who is knowledgeable in both state and federal law when this is a possibility because it can assuredly impact the final outcome of a case.

Sentencing Guidelines

The sentencing process varies from state to state, as well as state to federal levels. In New York the prosecutor, which will either be the assistant District Attorney or the assistant Attorney General, has the ability to offer a specific sentence they feel is fair for the defendant. The federal level is not a guarantee that a sentence that has been agreed upon will be upheld in court. A lawyer is a great asset when it comes to the sentencing process, because they will know both the federal and state guidelines and help you get a fair sentence.

Federal Court

Unlike state courts, Federal courts will not guarantee a sentence that you have agreed upon with the prosecutor. The judge has final say on the sentence and a lot of factors will be taken into consideration. Some of the factors include the severity of the crime, how they feel your attitude towards the crime is, and your past offenses. Having a lawyer on your side is necessary so they can coach you through the process and help you get the best sentence possible.

Following Conviction

Whether you make a plea agreement or you are convicted, the process has only begun. As soon as you are convicted or you enter a guilty plea, the judge sends the case to the Federal Department of Probation who then are required to issue a report. This report will tell the judge about the defendant and the details on the crime committed. In this report, both the prosecutor and you will have an opportunity to give information that is relevant to the crime and sentencing that should be in place. Your defense lawyer will not be able to comment on the report, but they can assist you on what information to give the judge.

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Potential Sentence

While the judge has final say on your sentence, the law does protect you to an extent. You cannot receive a sentence that is greater than necessary according to Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 3553(a). The judge must take into consideration the nature of the offense and the circumstances that surround it. He or she must also consider your character. The sentence will need to reflect how serious the offense is and respect the law. The judge must try to do everything in his or her power to help protect the public from any further crimes you may commit, including offering you training and education to correct your behavior. Finally, the judge will look at what type of sentences are available for the crime you committed. This means looking at past sentences with defendants who have similar records to you, and have committed similar crimes.