A close understanding of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines is a critical component to effective representation in U.S. District Court criminal cases.  The Guidelines are published by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and serve as a roadmap for judges, prosecutors, and defense counsel to determine the potential exposure and appropriate sentence for individuals convicted of federal crimes.

Enacted in 1987, the Guidelines provide a structured framework that considers various factors such as the nature and circumstances of the offense, the defendant’s criminal history, and any relevant mitigating or aggravating factors. Central to the application of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines is the calculation of the “offense level” and the “criminal history category.” The offense level is determined based on the specific characteristics of the offense.  The sentencing guidelines provide 43 levels of offense seriousness — the more serious the crime, the higher the offense level.

The criminal history category reflects the defendant’s prior criminal record. Criminal History Category I is the least serious category and includes many first-time offenders. Criminal History Category VI is the most serious category and includes offenders with serious criminal records.

These two components are then used to generate a sentencing range, within which the judge must impose a sentence that is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to achieve the goals of sentencing, including deterrence, rehabilitation, and public safety. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). For example, where the offense level is 7 and the criminal history category is II, the guideline range from the Sentencing Table is 2–8 months.  In such a case, the court may impose a sentence of probation only if it imposes a condition or conditions requiring at least two months of community confinement, home detention, or intermittent confinement, or a combination of community confinement, home detention, and intermittent confinement totaling at least two months.  If the defendant has an Offense Level of 20 and a Criminal History Category of I, the applicable guideline range is 33–41 months of imprisonment.

After the guideline range is determined, if an atypical aggravating or mitigating circumstance exists, the court may “depart” from the guideline range. That is, the judge may sentence the offender above or below the range. When departing, the judge must state in writing the reason for the departure.

The Federal Guidelines are extremely important in federal court.  Experienced counsel can use the Guidelines and interpreting case law to both provide guidance and attempt to reduce exposure at an individual’s sentencing.

Matthew P. Massey is a Partner in the White Collar, Government Investigations, and Special Matters Group.  He is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.  He represents businesses and individuals in high stakes matters including federal criminal defense and white collar crimes.