How Does Federal Sentencing Work?

Happy Friday again, everybody, hope you all had a great week. For this week’s video, I wanted to talk to you about something I get asked a lot and that’s how does sentencing work on the federal side? There’s a lot of news going around about some prominent political figures that are being sentenced on the federal side for violating federal laws. And there is some confusion about just how those sentences work or how a judge calculates what they consider a reasonable sentence, okay? So I’m going to give you kind of a crash course in how all that works.

So the first thing that the judge has to look at is what statute has been violated. Every statute on the federal side will have a range of punishment that’s associated with it, either zero to 10 years, zero to 20 years, 10 to life. There’s a range associated with every statute, but it’s a very broad range. So the judges need something that narrows it down just a little bit more. So what they turn to is this book. It is put out every single year by the United States Sentencing Commission. What this sentencing book does, it’s called the Guidelines Manual, is it helps a judge calculate what a person’s advisory guideline range is. Here’s how that works, basically.

For every law on the books, on the federal side, that laws listed in here, that law is given what’s called a base offense level, it’s a number somewhere between one and 42. So that’s your starting point, that number, your base offense level. The judge then takes that number, I should say, probation takes that number, because United States Probation is who does this calculation, they take that number and they apply certain enhancements or reductions to that number based on the facts of the individual case.

For example, if it’s a drug case and the person was a leader or an organizer of a criminal conspiracy, they can add up to four points to that offense level. For different drug cases, depending on the type and the weight of drug, the quantity of drug, there’s a certain number of points that get added to that offense level. For fraud cases, the loss amount, so how much money the person allegedly stole, will increase that number. On the flip side, if somebody pleads guilty, there’s a reduction that they get to take into account for what’s called acceptance of responsibility. If it is a minor drug offense or a non-violent drug offense, there’re reductions that can come, sometimes those are called the safety valve reduction, that can reduce a person’s offense level.

In any event, they ultimately end up with a final number called a total offense number, again, that number ranges somewhere between zero and 42, 44. They take that and then they calculate the person’s criminal history. The criminal history goes through a similar mathematical algorithm so every time the person has been in trouble, they get a certain number of points that are given to that offense. They get the total number of points and the person is then placed into a criminal history category, somewhere between one and six. Okay? So once you have a total offense level and you have a criminal history category, then you come back to the matrix, which it’s not in this book, but I’ll put a link down, a web address, where you can go take a look at this down below. Where there’s a big grid and you go down the grid, you find the offense level, you find the criminal history category, you find where those match up and it will give a guideline range of between so many months and so many months.

That’s considered the acceptable advisory guideline range. That’s the judge’s starting point to determine that type of sentence for this specific offense. This is going to be deemed a reasonable sentence. Now the judge still has the discretion to go above that range or below that range, if they think it’s appropriate in any given case, but that’s their starting point. So keep in mind also, there is no such thing as parole on the federal side. So when somebody gets sentenced to that number, they’re going to get some amount of time shaved off for good time or good behavior, but they’ll usually do about 80% of that sentence anytime they’re sentenced on the federal side.

So that’s how sentencing works in a nutshell, it’s obviously a whole lot more complicated than that. There are a whole lot more nuances and little things that a federal criminal defense attorney like myself has to look at when they’re trying to calculate somebody’s advisory guideline range, or advise somebody what they’re realistically looking at when they violated federal law. So if you have any specific questions, again, feel free to give me a call. I’m happy to walk you through it, answer any questions that I can and help in any way possible. I hope you all have a good weekend and we’ll see you next week.

Author Bio

James P. Whalen

James P. Whalen is the managing attorney and founder of Whalen Law Office, a Texas criminal defense firm offering personalized legal representation for various federal criminal charges. With a commitment to providing comfort and guidance during challenging times, Mr. Whalen serves as both an attorney and counselor to his clients, helping them navigate their cases while striving to restore normalcy to their lives.

In an inherently unbalanced criminal justice system, Mr. Whalen takes on cases with unwavering dedication. With decades of legal experience, he offers representation across various criminal charges, including white-collar crimes, violent crimes, drug charges, and more. Mr. Whalen’s numerous accolades, including Super Lawyer recognition and board certification in Criminal Appellate Law and Criminal Law, reflect his unwavering commitment to ethical and high-quality legal representation.

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