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Federal Criminal Sentencing

Review of the Sentencing Process in Federal Criminal Cases

Any defendant charged with federal crime will rightly fear the sentence more than the conviction. Federal trials and courtrooms are scary enough, but the prospect of doing time in a federal prison is truly frightening.

Federal Criminal Sentencing Defense Lawyer
The federal sentencing guidelines are used by judges when deciding what sentence to impose.

The Central District of California, like other federal jurisdictions, have their own tendencies related to prosecutors and judges and how they handle sentencing cases. 

The federal sentencing guidelines discussed below are used across the United States and each federal judge will review them when deciding what sentence to give a  criminal defendant.

These guidelines are advisory, meaning the judge has the discretion to go outside the guidelines, if they believe it's warranted based on the circumstances of a particular case and the defendant.

Further, defense lawyers and federal prosecutors must consider the sentencing guidelines in how handle a federal case and how they discuss the case with their client, as well as other relevant factors.

If you face an investigation or prosecution, then you need to know about federal sentencing guidelines so that you can make sound decisions about your federal criminal defense.

Serving a Federal Sentence

The first thought one charged with a federal crime may have is just where federal defendants serve their sentence of incarceration.

Federal defendants generally serve time in federal prisons, not in state prisons or county jails. The federal government locates its prisons throughout the country.

A federal defendant convicted in a local federal court in the defendant's home state could serve prison time in a federal prison located anywhere across the country.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons currently incarcerates 153,248 prisoners in 127 federal prisons, 68 prison camps, and a dozen private prisons in 37 different states. 

The federal inmate population is significantly lower than a decade ago, but still several times higher than thirty or more years ago.

The majority of federal prisons are low-security facilities housing defendants convicted of white collar crimes, such as wire fraud and mail fraud.

Celebrity businesswoman Martha Stewart, for example, served her federal prison time in the relatively genteel minimum-security Alderson federal facility along the banks of Virginia's Greenbrier River.

But federal maximum-security prisons like Marion, Illinois' U.S. Penitentiary, where baseball great Pete Rose and mafia boss John Gotti served their time, make the list of the most notorious.

Leavenworth and the highest-security ADX Florence facility are other infamous federal prisons.

Influencing Where One Serves Federal Time

Skilled legal representation can play a role in that all-important matter of where a convicted defendant serves time.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons Designation and Sentence Computation Center determines which federal facility in which a defendant will serve time.

The Center considers the defendant's request, generally to be close to supportive family and friends. Prison visits can be essential to meaningful rehabilitation.

But facility designations also depend on the:

  • defendant's security rating,
  • whether a facility has room and staff, and
  • similar administrative factors.

Martha Stewart, for example, requested facilities near her elderly mother or an airport for more convenient family and friend visits, but got assigned to the remote Alderson facility.

Another key factor in facility designation is whether the federal sentencing judge recommends a certain facility.

Skilled legal representation can bring to the sentencing judge's attention the defendant's specific rehabilitation needs and how a certain federal facility meets those needs.

You must make a case for your preferred facility based on the factors that sentencing judges recognize and respect.

To make that case, you need a federal criminal defense attorney who knows the sentencing judge's preferences and the federal facilities and facility-designation factors.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

The federal sentencing guidelines are basically rules federal judges must consider at sentencing for a defendant who was convicted, but they are not mandatory.

They are written by an agency called the United States Sentencing Commission, which is in the judicial branch of the federal government.

They are primarily designed to give federal judges fair and consistent sentencing ranges when imposing a sentence. They are based on the:

  • serious nature of the crime,
  • defendant's characteristics, and
  • criminal history.

If a federal judge wants to impose a different sentence, either higher or lower from the sentence calculated in the guidelines, they have to explain their decision.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines
If a judge wants to impose a different sentence, they are required to explain their decision.

How long a defendant may serve is another huge question that quickly occurs to those charged with a federal crime.

Am I going to prison, and if so, then for how long? The answer depends on the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. 

These sentencing guidelines generally determine whether incarceration is necessary and appropriate and, if so, for how long.

The guidelines are a complex set of factors.

They allow for what the Supreme Court Payne v Tennessee called a “very precise calibration of sentences,” depending largely on how reprehensible the defendant's conduct was and the seriousness of the resulting harm.

While the guidelines are complex, the federal statute 18 U.S.C. § 3553 summarizes these factors that the federal sentencing judge must consider:

  • the nature and circumstances of the offense;
  • the history and characteristics of the defendant;
  • the need for the sentence to reflect the seriousness of the offense;
  • the need for the sentence to promote respect for the law;
  • the need for the sentence to provide just punishment for the offense;
  • adequate deterrence to criminal conduct;
  • protecting the public from further crimes of the defendant;
  • providing the defendant with needed educational or vocational training;
  • the guideline ranges;
  • the need to avoid unwarranted sentences;
  • sentences of defendants with similar records for the same crime; and
  • the need to provide restitution to any victims of the offense.

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 called for establishing guidelines for federal sentences.

Congress sought to narrow the disparity in sentencing imposed by judges for similar crimes committed by a defendant with similar circumstances.

The actual sentencing of defendants in federal criminal cases, after a negotiated plea agreement with the prosecutor, or after being found guilty by a jury, begins with these sentencing guidelines.

Consistency in Federal Sentencing

The United States Sentencing Guidelines were created as a legislative response to what many believed was inconsistency in sentencing outcomes with similarly situated defendants around the United States.   

Most federal criminal statutes don't give judges a specific punishment in the case of a violation the law. 

For example, most federal criminal statutes are punishable up to a certain maximum term of federal prison time, along with imposing fines.  

Thus, federal judges, prior to the enactment of the guidelines, imposed a sentence they believed was fair and equitable as long as it didn't exceed the maximum time listed.

Put simply, this lead to very disparate results. For instance, let's say a provision in the federal criminal law was punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison. 

In one federal district in the country, a defendant might regularly receive about 5 years in prison for this violation, but defendants in other districts routinely received closer to 10 years.

Departures from the Sentencing Guidelines

A federal judge must also decide whether there are aggravating or mitigating circumstances the guidelines didn't sufficiently consider.

When they determine aggravating or mitigating circumstance exists, then they can impose a sentence below or above the guideline range, but must state their reasons in writing.  

If the sentence is an upward departure, a defendant can appeal their sentence. On the other side, if it's a downward departure, then the government can make an appeal.

Readers should note there is a special type of downward departure request that can be made by the federal prosecutor.

It's called “substantial assistance,” and normally granted in situations where a defendant gave significant help in the criminal investigation of another defendant.  

The Role of Legal Counsel in Federal Sentencing

If Federal Sentencing Guidelines generally determine a defendant's sentence, then what role is left for the defendant's counsel?

As noted above, the guidelines are not mandatory. They instead reduce inconsistency among sentencing judges.

The Role of Legal Counsel in Federal Sentencing
Federal criminal defense lawyers can play a significant role in judge's decision to depart on sentencing.

The federal sentencing judge must consider the guidelines when deciding on the defendant's sentence.

However, the federal sentencing judge may depart from the guidelines, imposing a harsher or granting a more lenient sentence.

The judge must explain any departure from the guidelines.

A federal sentencing judge's discretion to depart from the guidelines creates a significant role in sentencing for skilled federal criminal defense attorneys.

If you have been charged with a federal offense in California, or anywhere in the United States, we can help you.

Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County. Contact us for an initial consultation at (310) 328-3776.

We speak English, Russian, Armenian, and Spanish.

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