03 Nov 21

Who Decides Your Sentence in a Federal Criminal Case?

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Last Updated on: 5th August 2023, 07:54 pm

Who Decides Your Sentence in a Federal Criminal Case?


If you’ve been charged in a federal criminal case, there are still a few things you can do to minimize your sentence. A federal charge can be life-changing, so it’s essential to work with your defense attorney through the sentencing phase for the best possible outcome.

In a federal case, three components work together to decide your sentence:

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Before 1984, federal judges had unlimited discretion in determining an offender’s sentence. As a result, a wide range of sentences was routinely handed down to offenders with similar backgrounds and convicted of similar crimes. In addition, the United States Parole Commission decided when offenders could be released from prison, creating even more disparity in time served.

The Sentencing Reform Act went into effect in 1984, creating the United States Sentencing Commission. The commission was tasked with creating a set of guidelines that would be the central focus of a significantly different sentencing system. Parole was disallowed and replaced with supervised release.

The federal sentencing guidelines went into effect in 1987 and largely corrected the problem of sentencing disparities. In the current system, you can be assured of receiving a sentence similar to those imposed upon others who have committed a similar offense.

Presentence Investigation and Report

After you receive a guilty verdict, the judge will direct a federal probation officer to conduct your presentence investigation. The purpose of the investigation is to recommend a sentence that is appropriate for your offense.

The probation officer will review court records, gather pertinent documentation, and conduct interviews to develop a comprehensive representation of your character, criminal background, personal history and other elements that may affect sentencing.

Your Presentence Interview

The probation officer will want to conduct a presentence interview with you as soon as possible. The interview is of extreme importance: doing the right things during this time is crucial to the sentence you may receive. You have the legal right to have your defense lawyer attend the interview. The interviewer can use everything you say in his presentence report, including details that weren’t permissible in the trial.

It’s essential to make a good impression on the probation officer because he will recommend a sentence for you. You can tilt the scale in your favor if you:

  • Prepare to answer his questions.
  • Discuss your prior accomplishments and future plans.
  • Provide all documentation requested.
  • Be honest. If the probation officer later finds that you lied in the interview, he may adjust your sentence upward for obstruction of justice.
  • Talk about your plans and goals.
  • Be upfront about any substance abuse issues you’ve had. You may feel that you should hide this, but you could get your sentence reduced by up to one year if you complete a 500-hour rehabilitation program.

Sentence Recommendation

After all significant information is evaluated, a sentence will be recommended according to the federal guidelines.

The guidelines use a numeric system to obtain a sentence, using the gravity of the offense and your criminal history. Then, adjustments – called departures and variances — are applied for particular situations.

A knowledgeable and experienced defense attorney who understands the federal justice system is vital to obtain your best possible sentencing outcome.

The Sentencing Judge

At your sentencing hearing, you will have an opportunity to tell the court why you should receive a lenient sentence. The judge will be more likely to give you a lesser sentence if you:

  • Are sincere
  • Have genuine remorse and acceptance of responsibility
  • Show that you have thought about your crime and its impact on victims
  • Discuss future plans and goals
  • Are unlikely to recommit a crime

Your defense attorney’s role in the sentencing hearing is to advocate for a lenient sentence on your behalf. He will advise the court of productive things you have done, such as participating in rehabilitation or treatment. In addition, he may propose alternative sentences, such as placement in a treatment center, home detention, restitution or community service.

The decision regarding your sentence ultimately lies in the hands of the federal judge at your sentencing hearing. The guidelines are advisory, not mandatory, due to a Supreme Court decision in 2005. The judge can deliver a sentence above or below the guidelines for any reason, despite the presentence report.

However, judges don’t have time to explore the unique circumstances of each case, so they usually rely heavily on the sentencing recommendations in presentence reports.


There is a lot to be done between the entry of your verdict and the rendering of your sentence. It’s essential to work closely with an experienced federal defense attorney. You can have a positive impact on your sentencing outcome if you are familiar with the federal sentencing guidelines, cooperate with the parole official conducting your presentence investigation, and prepare well for your sentencing hearing.