What to Expect at Federal Criminal Sentencing Hearings

What to Expect at Federal Criminal Sentencing Hearings

Going to federal criminal sentencing can be an incredibly stressful and uncertain time. After entering a guilty plea or being found guilty at trial, the next big step is finding out your sentence. This is decided at a federal sentencing hearing, which is held separately from the trial or guilty plea.The sentencing hearing is your opportunity to present your side of the story and provide context for the judge to consider. The judge will determine the penalties based on a variety of factors. While each case is different, here is an overview of what you can generally expect at a federal criminal sentencing hearing:

Before the Sentencing Hearing

In the months leading up to the sentencing hearing, several key things happen to prepare:

  • Presentence Investigation Report (PSR) – After a guilty plea or conviction, a probation officer will conduct a presentence investigation and prepare a report for the judge. This includes interviewing the defendant, prosecutors, and others involved. The report contains information about the offense and offender and calculates advisory sentencing guidelines.
  • Objections – The defense and prosecution get a chance to object to anything in the PSR. Common objections relate to the guidelines calculation or factual inaccuracies.
  • Sentencing Memorandum – The defense submits a sentencing memo to persuade the judge to impose a lenient sentence. This provides background on the defendant and argues for a below-guidelines sentence.
  • Letters of Support – Friends, family, employers, etc. can submit letters in support of the defendant for the judge to consider. These help paint a fuller picture of the defendant’s character.
  • Financial Documentation – The defense gathers records related to finances, assets, debts, etc. to help argue for lower fines and fees.

Thoroughly preparing for sentencing is crucial, as this is your main chance to influence the judge’s decision.

The Sentencing Hearing

The sentencing hearing is held in open court, typically with the defendant, attorneys for both sides, and the judge present. Victims and supporters of both sides may also attend. Here’s how it normally goes:

  • Case Call – The judge confirms everyone’s presence and that all required documents have been received.
  • Summary – The judge summarizes the case history and procedural posture.
  • Guidelines Review – Any disputed issues related to calculating the guidelines are argued and decided.
  • Victim Statements – The judge permits victim impact statements, either written or oral.
  • Prosecution Argument – The prosecutor recommends a sentence and presents aggravating factors.
  • Defense Argument – The defense argues for mitigating factors and a lenient sentence.
  • Defendant Statement – The defendant is given an opportunity to make a statement to the judge.
  • Sentence Imposed – The judge announces the final sentence and conditions of supervised release.

The judge will also address restitution, forfeiture, and any fines or fees at sentencing. It’s critical for the defense to effectively argue for the lowest reasonable sentence.

Key Factors Considered at Sentencing

Federal judges have significant discretion in imposing sentences within the statutory range. While the sentencing guidelines provide advisory ranges, judges will consider the following kinds of factors:

  • Offense Conduct – The nature of the offense and specific circumstances are key considerations. More serious crimes generally receive harsher sentences. Mitigating factors like a limited role in the offense or no prior record can help.
  • Defendant Characteristics – Age, employment, community ties, charitable acts, family obligations, mental health, addiction issues, and other personal factors may persuade the judge to be more lenient.
  • Acceptance of Responsibility – Pleading guilty early and expressing genuine remorse improves chances for a reduced sentence. But simply saying the right things isn’t enough.
  • Sentencing Disparities – Judges may consider avoiding unwarranted disparities with sentences imposed on similarly situated defendants for similar crimes.
  • Restitution – A defendant’s financial means to pay restitution to victims may be considered.
  • Guidelines Range – While not binding, the calculated guidelines range remains influential in most cases.
  • Statutory Maximums – The judge cannot exceed the statutory maximum sentence even if the guidelines recommend a higher range.

Though the guidelines provide a starting point, advocacy from defense counsel on these kinds of issues can make a major difference in the sentence imposed.

The Role of the Federal Judge

The judge has significant discretion in deciding the appropriate sentence based on the facts and circumstances of each case. While the guidelines recommend ranges based on the offense and criminal history, the judge is not required to follow them.After considering the guidelines and counsels’ arguments, the judge makes an individualized assessment based on the §3553(a) factors outlined above. The judge may choose to vary above or below the guidelines if appropriate.Judges may also choose to run multiple sentences concurrently or consecutively. This makes a huge difference in the total sentence length.Given the judge’s substantial role in sentencing, having an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer argue effectively on your behalf is crucial.

Sentencing Options and Implications

For most federal crimes, the main options include prison time, fines, supervised release, and restitution. Here are some key implications of federal sentences:

  • Prison – Sentences over 1 year are served in federal prison. Shorter sentences may be served in local jails. Harsh conditions and lack of parole make federal prison time very costly.
  • Supervised Release – Almost all federal sentences come with 1+ years of supervision after release. Violations lead to more prison time.
  • Fines – Large fines from $1,000 to $250,000+ per count are common. The judge considers ability to pay.
  • Restitution – Full victim restitution is required in most cases. Even if restitution is ordered, fines may still apply.
  • Forfeiture – Convicted defendants may forfeit property derived from or used in the crime.
  • Collateral Consequences – Convictions can impact voting rights, employment, professional licensing, government aid, immigration status, and more.

Understanding these long-term consequences is important when considering plea deals and sentencing strategies.


Going through federal sentencing is a difficult experience full of uncertainty. While the judge makes the final call, thorough preparation and effective advocacy from an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can have a big influence.Mitigating factors and arguments for a variance from the guidelines should be raised well in advance and presented persuasively at the hearing. The defense should also address concerns like prison designation, programs, and surrender.Though challenging, with the right legal guidance and support, the sentencing hearing represents an opportunity to achieve the most favorable outcome possible under the circumstances.