Sentencing in Federal Court
Most people have a basic understanding of the process involved to determine a sentence for a person convicted of a crime. In most state courts, a judge imposes a sentence based upon parameters set by the legislature.
As an example, in the State of Nebraska, a Class III felony is punishable by a term of imprisonment between one (1) and twenty (20) years in prison. For a person convicted of a Class III felony, a judge can impose a sentence between those two numbers.
In federal court, the system is similar with one major difference.
Similar to state court, federal judges impose sentences based upon parameters set by federal laws. The difference in federal court is judges consider the United States Sentencing Guidelines before determining an appropriate sentence. The Guidelines were created to promote unity across the United States for the imposition of sentences. The idea was to ensure that a person who was convicted of a federal crime in California would likely receive a similar sentence to a person convicted of the sam crime in Nebraska.
In short, the Guidelines require the Court to start with a certain amount of months of incarceration.
The more severe the crime, the higher the starting point.
The starting point for federal judges is called a base offense level.
For every federal crime, there is a corresponding base offense level. The more serious the crime, the higher base offense level. Every base offense level has a corresponding term of imprisonment. The United States Sentencing Commission publishes a table of sentences, which you can view here. The numbers appearing on the table represent the months of incarceration. A defendant’s potential guideline range is based upon a combination of a defendant’s criminal history category (across the top of the table) and the offense level (down the left side of the table).
Offense levels are the levels which indicate a possible range of sentence that a person will receive upon entry of plea or upon a conviction. The offense level is noted on the left side of the sentencing chart included with this letter. That offense level, when aligned with the correct criminal history category, provides the possible range of sentencing guidelines.
If a person has no criminal history, the criminal history category (across the top of the table) will be a I. The more criminal history a person has, the longer the sentence to be imposed.
Let’s assume for example a person is charged with conspiracy to possesses pseudoephedrine knowing it was going to be used to manufacture methamphetamine. Let’s assume that a defendant purchased pseudoephedrine 10 times in the past few years. There is approximately is 2.88 grams of pseudoephedrine in 96 count box of Sudafed (or whatever drug was used). Ten (10) purchases times 2.88 grams equals a total of 28 grams of pseudoephedrine.
According to the sentencing guidelines, a person who possession between 10 and 40 grams of pseudoephedrine knowing it will be used to manufacture methamphetamine is subject to a base offense level of twenty-six (26).
Looking at the sentencing table, a person with no criminal history and a base offense level of 26 is looking at a term of imprisonment between 63 and 78 months.
Enhancements and Reductions based upon the Facts associated with the Crime
There are ways a base offense level can be increased or decreased. In some cases, the number can increased if there was violence involved with the commission of the crime or a weapon was used. Conversely, the base offense level can also decrease if a person was a minimal participant in the crime or if the person enters a plea and saves the government the time and energy associated with preparing for trial.
Another way a defendant can receive a reduction in his or her sentence is by providing substantial assistance in helping investigators develop and prosecute cases against other people who are involved in illegal activity.
After providing such assistance, and after a defendant is sentenced, the Court is allowed to reduce the sentence if the government files a motion within one year of the sentencing date showing that the defendant did provide assistance. The Motion is called a Rule 35 motion, and once again the motion is filed after the defendant is formally sentenced. Depending upon the information and cooperation provided, I’ve seen defendants receive a 50 percent reduction in their sentences. Furthermore, I have seen reductions greater than 50 percent for Defendants who testify in court.
Of course, the government will only consider filing a motion for downward departure of a sentence if a defendant cooperates before trial. This option is not available for defendants who have a trial and require that the government prepare for trial.
Parole or Probation
There is no such thing as parole in the federal system. In the federal system, a person convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison will do every day of that sentence minus 54 days per year for good time, if the person retains his or her good time.
Probation is available for certain defendants, but most people who get charged in federal court are charged with such serious crimes, probation is not a realistic option.