How do federal sentencing guidelines work?

On Behalf of | Jan 14, 2020 | Federal Crimes |

When an individual receives a conviction for a federal crime, the judge must consult the federal sentencing guidelines before determining the punishment—in federal cases, over 90% of defendants are sentenced to prison time. These guidelines became law in 1987 and define 43 levels of severity and six criminal history categories that reflect the Sentencing Commission’s account for the defendant and the details of the offense. The original purpose was to make federal punishment more uniform, across the United States, but, predictably, there were many unexpected consequences and political influences and the original purpose was not achieved. What a lawyer does for a client often has a major influence on the sentence, if the client is found guilty.

If you are facing a federal criminal charge, learn more about how the federal sentencing guidelines may impact your case. This highlighted link gives additional information but is no substitute for legal evaluation and advice that is applied to your specific case.

Base offense levels and characteristics

Each federal crime has a designated base offense number. The higher the number, the higher the penalty. Each offense also has described characteristics that may increase this base number and thus increase the person’s potential penalties if convicted. For example, the base offense level for robbery is 20. If the person showed a firearm during the offense, the number can be increased to 25, and increased to 27 if he or she discharged or brandished or used the weapon to intimidate a victim during the robbery. There is also a separate firearms statute that can be enforced to require a mandatory term of 7 years to life imprisonment, to be served consecutively to the underlying robbery. “White collar” punishments increase with the amount of money, the number of victims and whether public institutions were harmed. When a person is convicted of more than one crime, the guidelines provide special rules for multiple counts of conviction, starting with the most serious offense and going up from there.


In addition to the range of offense numbers for each specific crime, certain adjustments can apply to any offense. For example, obstruction of justice adds two offense levels to any charge, as does committing a crime against a vulnerable person such as a minor or disabled individual; or for committing an offense while on bail, community supervision or parole. Conversely, some adjustments decrease the offense level. If you played only a minor role in a crime you may receive a decrease of two offense levels. If you accept responsibility for your offense, you also may expect to receive a two or three level reduction. If you give substantial assistance to the prosecutors, the sentence is usually reduced.

Determining the sentence range

Offenders receive a classification from I (least severe) to VI (most severe) depending on their criminal history. The calculation of a “Criminal History Category” is complicated. The sentencing table compares the offense level with the person’s criminal history category to indicate and advise the court about the final sentence.

Often, federal judges impose sentences that goes above or below the guidelines. Prosecutors and defense lawyer argue, unless they agree, about whether a case has aggravating or mitigating circumstances that take it out of the “heartland” of the Sentencing Guidelines.