Federal sentencing has often been referred to as draconian or “dark ages” type of justice. Penalties are harsh, and probation is almost unheard of (although not impossible). Almost all federal statutes are felonies. Parole has been abolished in the federal system, so defendants generally do at least 85% of their sentence. After incarceration, a defendant is generally sentenced to a period of supervised release which is intense probation. Violations of supervised release will generally send a defendant back to jail for a substantial period of time.
Sentences are generally dictated by the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“USSG”). These are rules set by congress which attempt to standardize sentences in different federal districts/areas of the country. Recent caselaw has made the guidelines “advisory” to the court, so they are no longer mandatory. Nevertheless, every court continuance to sentence most defendants based off the guidelines.
The USSG calculate sentences by looking at two things: the crime; a defendant’s criminal history.
–The Crime: Every criminal federal statute is noted in the USSG and given a number called a Base Offense Level “BOL.” The higher the number, the more jail time is associated. This number can go up or down. It can go up (points added) for factors that make the case aggravating. The BOL can go down for things like pleading guilty, cooperation with the government, and role in the offense. The name of the game is to get this number as low as possible.
–Criminal History: the worse a defendant’s criminal history, the more time they are looking at. Each conviction is given points depending on its severity. You can also get points for committing offense while on parole. Some minor crimes do not count, but most do. As in BOLs, its important to score as low as possible on the criminal history scale.
Once a BOL and criminal history are calculated, one looks at the USSG chart. The chart consists of ranges of months of incarceration which are determined by the BOL and Criminal History Category.
It is imperative that if you are being federally prosecuted, or a target of a federal investigation, you hire an attorney skilled in the USSGs and federal statutes. It really can make a significant difference in a potential sentence. This area of the law in very complex and experience can make all the difference.