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How Federal Sentencing Guidelines Work

There is an old saying, “make a federal case out of it,” which means to exaggerate the importance of a dispute. Its origin is the fact that in federal criminal cases, punishment is typically severe. However, there are controls in place designed to ensure fairness and uniformity in sentencing for federal crimes.

Federal criminal defense lawyer

Penalties in federal cases follow the federal sentencing guidelines. These are instructions for judges to take a number of factors into account in determining an appropriate punishment. For a long time, a guideline sentence wasn’t a guideline at all. Judges were required to adhere to whatever sentence the federal guidelines specified in the particular circumstances. Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling, the guidelines now are actually guidelines: judges are free to depart up or down depending on what sentence they feel is appropriate.

Basically, a judge looks at a sentencing table and locates the guideline sentence for the defendant’s crime and history. From there, a judge is allowed to use his or her discretion to depart upward or downward from the guideline sentence if he or she feels that the circumstances warrant it.

There are three primary factors that judges consider:

  • The defendant’s criminal history — As you would expect, a first-time offender will receive a more lenient sentence than a career criminal.
  • The crime itself —Some crimes are less serious than others. Drug trafficking is going to draw a greater sentence than drug possession, for example.
  • Soft factors —Defendants who plead guilty or cooperate with police investigations will likely receive downward departures from a sentence specified in the guidelines, whereas individuals committing particularly heinous or violent conduct may receive an upward departure.

Despite judges’ exercise of discretion, the guidelines remain a useful indicator of your sentence should you be convicted. For defendants considering their legal strategy, there is an advantage to the guidelines: you know what you’re facing pretty early on. For example, if you are looking at a guideline sentence of 30 years, your defense attorney may recommend negotiating a satisfactory plea bargain to a lower offense rather than risk going to trial.

If you have been charged with a federal crime, James Law Firm can talk to you about your potential sentence and your options for fighting back. To learn about your rights and legal options, please call (501) 375-0900 or contact us online.

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