The Federal Sentencing Guidelines is a strict and onerous standard birthed during the law and order 1980s, designed to take decision making away from the liberal judges deemed too soft on crime.  Before then it was mostly up to each individual judge to decide how to punish criminals convicted in the judge’s court. This led to a wide disparity in sentencing. People convicted of a crime in one judge’s court would often face a much shorter or longer prison sentence than people convicted of the same crime in another judge’s court. The basic idea behind the Federal Sentencing Guidelines is that similar crimes committed under similar circumstances should be punished similarly.  Unfortunately, though, it created a set of hard and fast rules leading to extreme results, but no one paid much attention at the time since so few people were affected.  Well, thanks to these changes, the federal prison population bloated ten-fold and sentence lengths soared into the stratosphere.  

The basic gist of it is that you start off in a Category, depending on your criminal history.  These Categories range from 1, for someone with no criminal history, all the way up to Category 6.  As you can imagine, a prospective sentence gets progressively harsher, depending on your history.  You’re then assessed points based on the relevant factors of your case.  These include such things as the alleged dollar amount or volume of drugs, number of victims, and whether you used sophisticated means or a firearm was involved, among numerous other variables.  The rules for this exercise are vague, overly inclusive, arbitrary, subjective and open to manipulation, ensuring they can add up quickly.  The Guidelines also recommend obscenely longer sentences the higher up you go.  So, one extra level at the low end, from 16 to 17, let’s say, will result in just 3 extra months, while that same one level at the high-end, from 35 to 36 tacks on an additional 22 months.  This helps to explain how even first-time offenders can get ridiculously long sentences.  Anyway, you then total those points and it corresponds to a recommended sentencing guideline range (i.e. 57-71 months, or 110-121 months).  This analysis is done by the Department of Probation which then sends it to the judge who has some flexibility but is otherwise mandated to adhere to the guidelines.

How The Federal Sentencing Guidelines Work

For the sentencing guidelines to achieve the goal of uniformity in sentencing between federal courts, there has to be a way that judges can use them to determine how long a convicted person should be imprisoned under the circumstances of the particular case. This is done by using a table that tells judges what the appropriate sentencing range is for different crimes. The table takes two primary factors into consideration:

  1. The severity of the crime, and
  2. The criminal history of the convicted.

Both of those factors need further explanation.

The Severity of the Crime

Every federal crime that is a felony or a Class A misdemeanor has an offense level associated with it. Lesser felonies are not a part of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. There are 43 offense levels in the guidelines. The higher the level, the more severe the crime is considered to be and the longer the prison sentence suggested by the guidelines is. For example, the guidelines suggest that someone convicted of a Level 1 offense should receive a prison sentence between zero and six months but someone convicted of a Level 43 offense should receive a sentence of life in prison.

The Criminal History of the Convicted

One of the principles behind the Federal Sentencing Guidelines is that repeat offenders should be given longer prison sentences than people convicted of fewer prior criminal acts. To achieve this points are awarded for every prior conviction. The number of points awarded for each conviction can get technical and complicated but some examples are:

1 point is given for each prior conviction that resulted in a sentence of less than 60 days.

2 points are given for each prior conviction that resulted in a sentence between 60 days and 13 months.

3 points are given for each prior conviction that resulted in a sentence greater than 13 months.

All the points are added up and the total is used to determine the Criminal History Category of the convicted person. The Guidelines have six different criminal history categories. They are expressed in roman numerals with Category I having the fewest points and Category VI having the most points.

Using the Sentencing Table

Once the offense level and the criminal history category are determined, using the Sentencing Table is easy. The criminal history categories are listed on the top and the offense levels are listed on the left. The sentence that should be imposed is listed where the two intersect on the table. For example, someone with a criminal history category of I convicted of a criminal offense of level 8 should be sentenced to between zero and six months in prison. However, someone convicted of the same level 8 offense but with a criminal history category of V should be sentenced to between 15 and 21 months in prison.

Zones, Adjustments and Departures

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines also allow judges to deviate from the suggested sentence in particular cases. The sentencing table lists sentences in four different zones: A, B, C, and D. People who fall into Zone A can be given probation without having to serve any time in prison. People who fall into Zone B must serve at least one month in prison, but are eligible to serve the remainder of their sentence in alternative confines, such as home detention. People who fall into Zone C must serve at least half of their total sentence in prison, but can serve the other half in alternative confines.

Judges also have the leeway to impose greater or lesser prison sentences if the circumstances warrant deviating from the guidelines. Someone who assists in the prosecution of other defendants might receive a lesser sentence than that suggested by the sentencing table. However, someone who used a deadly weapon while committing the crime might receive a greater sentence than that suggested by the sentencing table. There are many other reasons that a judge might deviate from the guidelines in a particular case.

Not Mandatory

Finally, it is important to understand that the use of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines is not mandatory as the United States Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Booker (decided in 2005) that the guidelines violate the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. However, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are still closely adhered to by judges because it makes them less likely to be overruled on appeal which, for most of them, is a major pet peeve.