What are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines and How Do They Affect Punishment in Court?

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are non-binding rules that outline how defendants should be sentenced for their crimes. “Non-binding” means judges are required to calculate and consider the guidelines when sentencing. However the guidelines are not mandatory. And because they aren’t, judges have some discretion to sentence someone higher or lower than the calculated guideline’s range.

To go against the guidelines, a judge is required to make findings of fact and document legal justifications for why they did not follow the guidelines. All of those decisions are reviewed by the Federal Sentencing Commission in Washington D.C.  So, expect them to sentence according to the guidelines in most cases.

Judges may consider a broad range of factors and not follow the guidelines when they feel the facts of the situation warrant an increase or decrease in your sentence. However, they have to be careful when they choose to do so. They have to explain the factors that made them come to their decision in detail.

The current United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines came into play in 1987 and were written by the US Sentencing Commission. Prior to that, federal judges could literally impose whatever sentence they wanted on you for your crime.

Unsurprisingly, that led to people committing nearly the same crime and receiving wildly different sentences for it in different parts of the country. So, that in turn led to the creation of the sentencing guidelines.

How do the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Affect Your Punishment?

The guidelines assist the courts in determining a starting point for consideration of the appropriate punishment for a defendant who has committed a substantially similar crime and who has a similar criminal history to other defendants.  Then, after hearing the arguments of the attorneys, they have the discretion to follow the guidelines or to do something different.  It is the job of the defendant’s attorney to try to establish that his client is “outside the heartland” of the types of persons contemplated by the guidelines and to convince the judge to reduce the punishment below the calculated guideline range.

In addition to the guidelines, the court must consider the range of punishments the law allows. Every criminal act carries a statutory maximum, which is the largest punishment you can possibly receive. And some, but not all, crimes include a mandatory minimum.

Look at an Example to See How the Mandatory Minimums Work

John gets convicted of a crime that requires a mandatory minimum of 5 years. However, the sentencing guidelines disagree and say John should get 37-46 months in prison. Because 60 months is the mandatory minimum, John must get at least 60 months in prison for his crimes.

However, two exceptions to mandatory minimums exist, which could reduce John’s sentence:

1. The “safety valve,” which is a statutory test that only applies to federal drug offenses. If John meets the requirements of all five parts of the test, the judge may use the sentencing guidelines to give John a sentence below the mandatory minimum.

2. Providing “substantial assistance” to the prosecution can allow for the judge to go below the mandatory minimum sentence. If John gives prosecutors useful information for bringing other criminals to justice, the prosecutor can ask the court to give him a sentence below the mandatory minimum.

In the end, the Sentencing Guidelines are just that – “guidelines.” That’s it. They give you a good, but not perfectly accurate, idea of what sentence you may receive for your crimes. Judges usually stay near them, but ultimately the judge has the discretion to determine what the sentence will be, and nobody can promise you in advance what the judge will do.

Your attorney should be well versed in the application of the guidelines to your case and be willing to be creative in crafting an argument that will help convince the judge to give you a reduced sentence.