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Sentencing & the Federal Sentencing Guidelines

January 6, 2020

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.

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.



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