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Facing Criminal Charges in Virginia? Call Us at (540) 343-9349

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

There are several disadvantages to facing criminal charges in federal court instead of state court. One such disadvantage is that federal criminal sentencing usually results in longer prison terms, higher fines, and in some cases the obligation to compensate the government for its expenses in prosecuting you. These crippling penalties are largely laid out in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which apply to federal felony and Class A misdemeanor offenses.

For this reason, you should seek the assistance of a criminal defense attorney with significant experience litigating in federal court if you are ever charged with a federal crime. Do not accept any plea agreement before speaking with a skilled lawyer, as there may be ways to obtain a better plea agreement, or even to win your case. For a consultation with the Roanoke federal crimes attorneys from Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico, call (540) 343-9349.

What Are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were developed in the mid-1980s by the United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency within the judicial branch that was authorized by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The Commission is composed of seven voting members who are appointed to six-year terms by the President. No more than four commissioners may be members of the same political party, and at least three of them must be federal judges.

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were meant to provide judges with clear standards in determining the sentence for an offender. Before the guidelines existed, federal judges could hand down any sentence ranging from probation to the maximum penalty authorized by the crime’s particular statute. The Commission conducted a detailed study of the sentences judges handed down for different offenses and classes of offenders, and developed narrow sentencing ranges as a result.

How Do the Guidelines Affect Sentencing?

One of the most important changes brought by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines was the abolishment of parole (early release from prison) at the federal level. Such a change required that sentences–that could no longer be shortened–be of the optimal length to punish the offender and protect the public.

The guidelines provide judges with a chart that produces sentences based on two factors:

  • The severity of the offense–There are 43 offense levels under the Guidelines, which are dependent upon the severity of the crime and the offender’s conduct. For example, first-degree murder is level 43, and involuntary manslaughter is level 12–or 18 if the case involves reckless conduct.
  • The offender’s criminal history–There are six criminal history categories, which encompass a different range of “criminal history points.” Judges must calculate these points by adding up prior convictions and lengths of sentences, including probation and parole. Offenders will receive additional points if they reoffended shortly after or during their sentence period.

By lining up the offense level with the number of criminal history points on the chart, the judge will land in one of four sentencing zones:

  • Zone A–The least serious, with a sentencing range of zero to six months. Offenders landing in this zone may benefit from probation.
  • Zone B–May produce a maximum sentence between six and 12 months. There is a possibility for probation, but at least one month of the sentence must be carried out in prison.
  • Zone C–Minimum sentence of less than 12 months, and up to 18 months. Here, offenders may benefit from a “split sentence,” meaning that at least half the sentence must be served in prison.
  • Zone D–The highest sentencing range, involving minimum sentences higher than 15 months.

Are the Sentencing Guidelines Still Relevant?

The United States Supreme Court cases of Booker v. United States (2004) and Blakely v. Washington (2005) undermined the effect of the guidelines on sentencing in federal courts. Now, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are advisory only. This means that Federal judges calculate the sentence using the guideline’s chart, and then use that sentencing range as guidance. But the final sentence does not need to be within the guidelines’ sentencing range.

For example, if you get convicted of an offense that lands you in Zone B (with a maximum sentence of 12 months), the judge may nonetheless hand down an 18-month sentence. Judges may exceed the guidelines, but they may not exceed the maximum sentences laid out in the statutes applying to the crime at issue in the case. And overly harsh sentences may be appealed. Nonetheless, federal sentences have gotten harsher over the last decade, with judges handing down prison terms that exceed those recommended by the guidelines in about 50 percent of cases.

According to 8 U.S.C. Section 3553, the factors that may influence a judge’s sentencing decision include:

  • The type of offense, and the “characteristics” of the defendant.
  • How the sentence reflects the seriousness of the criminal conduct, whether it will act as an effective deterrent to crime, and whether the sentence adequately protects the public from the offender.
  • How the sentence might help rehabilitate the offender through education, vocational training, medical care or “other correctional treatment.”
  • How the crime and offender fall within the sentencing guidelines
  • Any other public policy concern

Thus, federal judges possess significant leeway in determining your sentence. This is all the more reason to have an assertive and knowledgeable defense lawyer in your corner who might influence the judge’s sentencing decision. Of course, your lawyer may also be able to avoid the issue of influencing the judge’s sentence entirely by winning your trial or by obtaining the dismissal of the charges before the trial starts. In many cases, defense lawyers are able to have the prosecution’s evidence removed from the case in situations where law enforcement illegally obtained it. Without evidence to prove your guilt, the dismissal of the charges is a real possibility.

How Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico Can Help

At Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico, our Roanoke criminal defense attorneys will work tirelessly to obtain the best result possible under your circumstances. Court-appointed attorneys often juggle dozens of cases at a time, and may be unable to give yours the close look it deserves. But we will leave no stone unturned in formulating a strong and effective defense for your case. If you are facing federal criminal charges, don’t contend with these strict sentencing guidelines on your own.

Call us today at (540) 343-9349 for a consultation.