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Philadelphia Federal Criminal Sentencing FAQs: Guidelines, Mandatory Minimums


Philadelphia Federal Criminal Sentencing FAQs: Guidelines, Mandatory Minimums

If you or a loved one have been charged with a federal crime in Philadelphia, you likely have a lot of questions about what to expect when it comes to sentencing. This article aims to provide some frequently asked questions and answers around federal sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimums, and more to help you understand the process and potential outcomes.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

The US Federal Sentencing Guidelines provide recommended sentencing ranges for federal crimes based on the offense level and criminal history category. Judges use these guidelines to determine sentences, but they are not mandatory. Here are some key things to know:

  • The guidelines provide sentencing ranges in months – for example, 46 to 57 months.
  • Judges have discretion to sentence above or below the guidelines, but must provide justification for doing so.
  • The guidelines take into account factors like the specific offense, loss amounts, victim impact, defendant’s role, and more.
  • Criminal history also impacts where you fall on the guidelines table.
  • The guidelines are advisory, but judges must consider them when determining an appropriate sentence.

How much of an impact do the guidelines have?

Although advisory, most federal sentences still fall within the guidelines. According to the US Sentencing Commission, in fiscal year 2021, 77.7% of sentences in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania fell within the guidelines range. Only 0.4% were above the guidelines, while 22% were below. So while they don’t dictate the sentence, they do significantly influence federal sentences in Philadelphia.

What factors influence where you fall on the guidelines table?

The offense level and criminal history category mostly determine where you land on the table. Things that impact offense level include:

  • Base offense level for the specific crime
  • Loss amounts or drug quantities involved
  • Number of victims
  • Bodily injury or death
  • Defendant’s role (leader/organizer versus minor participant)
  • Obstruction of justice
  • Acceptance of responsibility

Meanwhile, criminal history depends on the number and severity of prior convictions. So the specifics of your case impact where you fall on the table and the resulting sentence recommendation.

What about departures from the guidelines?

In some cases, judges will “depart” from the guidelines if they find an aggravating or mitigating factor that the guidelines don’t adequately account for. Upward departures lead to longer sentences, while downward departures are more lenient. According to federal sentencing data, downward departures are far more common than upward departures.

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How do mandatory minimums interact with the guidelines?

If an offense carries a mandatory minimum sentence set by statute, that trumps the sentencing guidelines. So if the guidelines recommend 46-57 months, but there is a 5-year mandatory minimum, the judge must impose at least 5 years. Mandatory minimums place a floor on potential sentences. We’ll dig into mandatory minimums next.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences

While federal sentencing guidelines provide recommended ranges, mandatory minimums are sentence floors set by statute for certain crimes. They limit judicial discretion. Here’s what you need to know:

  • They apply to serious drug and weapon offenses, child pornography, identity theft, and other crimes
  • Amounts of drugs or losses involved trigger different minimums
  • Prior felony drug convictions also trigger higher minimums
  • Judges cannot go below the minimum even if guidelines recommend less
  • Prosecutors can sometimes dismiss minimums through plea deals

What are some examples of federal mandatory minimums?

To give you an idea of how mandatory minimums work, here are a few common examples:

  • 5 grams of meth = 5-year minimum
  • 28 grams of crack cocaine = 5-year minimum
  • Prior drug felony + 28 grams of crack = 10-year minimum
  • Brandishing firearm during drug crime = 7-year consecutive minimum
  • Possession of child pornography = 5-year minimum

The amounts to trigger the different minimums are set by Congress. The minimum sentence must be imposed regardless of sentencing guidelines.

What about mandatory life sentences?

There are also mandatory life sentences required for some serious federal drug offenses. For example:

  • Prior drug felony + 5kg cocaine = Mandatory life
  • Leader of drug ring with 30kg of heroin = Mandatory life

These leave judges with no discretion – they must impose a life sentence if prosecutors prove those offense elements beyond a reasonable doubt.

Can you get relief from mandatory minimums?

There are a few ways mandatory minimum sentences can be avoided:

  1. Prosecutors dismissing the charge with the minimum through a plea agreement
  2. Providing “substantial assistance” to the government in investigating or prosecuting others
  3. The statutory “safety valve” for low-level non-violent drug offenders
  4. Sentence commutation by the President

However, qualifying for these forms of relief depends on the specifics of your case and government discretion. The mandatory minimums themselves remain binding in most cases.

How Do Federal Sentences Compare to State?

There are a few key differences between federal and Pennsylvania state sentences:

  • No parole in the federal system – you serve at least 85% of the term imposed
  • Federal sentences tend to be longer on average
  • More mandatory minimums for drugs, guns, etc. in federal cases
  • Federal sentencing guidelines aim to reduce disparities

So while the crimes may be similar, the sentencing consequences tend to be more severe at the federal level. The lack of parole, steeper punishments, and mandatory minimums for certain offenses make federal prosecution very serious.

How Can an Experienced Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer Help?

Having an experienced federal criminal defense attorney on your side can make all the difference when facing prosecution in Philadelphia. Here’s how a lawyer can help when it comes to sentencing:

  • Negotiating with prosecutors to dismiss charges with mandatory minimums or pursue alternate charges without them
  • Advising you on options to cooperate and provide substantial assistance
  • Gathering evidence and documents to present mitigating circumstances to the judge
  • Researching case law that supports a departure from the guidelines
  • Presenting persuasive sentencing memos and arguments to the judge advocating for the lowest end of the range

An attorney who regularly handles federal sentencings and negotiations with the Philadelphia U.S. Attorney’s Office will know all the ins and outs of the process. Their experience fighting these cases and passion for defending client rights can go a long way toward achieving the most favorable outcome possible.

Don’t leave the fate of your freedom in the government’s hands alone. Hire an aggressive defense lawyer to stand by your side and fight for the lowest sentence based on the unique circumstances of your case.

For more guidance on Philadelphia federal sentencing or to discuss your particular case, contact my office today.


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