Just What Are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines? Blog by Richard J. Goldberg

If you are charged with a federal offense and your case is in federal court, then you will become familiar with the federal sentencing guidelines.  In 1984, Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act and its purpose was to create uniformity in sentences passed throughout the United States in the federal court system.


          The guidelines are a grid chart based upon two general factors.


          The first factor is a calculation of a person’s criminal record, if any.


          The second factor is based upon the crime charged and each federal crime is assigned a numerical base-offense level value.


          Using the guidelines, the defendant is assigned an offense level and a criminal history category.  Each guideline calculation is subject to upward or downward departures based upon factors that should increase a sentencing range or lower a sentencing range.  Federal judges generally would impose a sentence within this numerically-calculated guideline range.


          Some people, including members of the defense bar, felt that the guidelines were too rigid and harsh.  In a series of cases beginning in 2005, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the guidelines are only advisory and those guidelines are now merely one out of many factors to be considered by the federal courts in imposing a sentence that should be sufficient, but not greater than necessary, in order to accomplish the goals and principles of sentencing.


          In sentencing, federal judges are required to consider any statutory factors, including the nature and circumstances of the offense, the history and characteristics of the defendant, punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, the kinds of sentences available, the need to avoid unwarranted disparities in sentences and the need to provide restitution, among other things.  All of these factors, as well as the guidelines, are to be used in arriving at a fair sentence.


          In conclusion, a person charged with a federal offense must retain an attorney who is highly-skilled and experienced in the federal sentencing scheme.