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How is severity of sentencing for federal crimes determined?

On Behalf of | Feb 18, 2022 | Federal Crimes |

The gut-wrenching feeling of facing a criminal charge can leave any New Jersey resident feeling uncertain about the future. In particular, if you face allegations of a federal crime, your situation may pose a more serious risk to your future than for a state-level offense. Fortunately, you still have rights and the opportunity to address your situation in hopes of working toward the best outcome possible.

When it comes to creating a meaningful defense, it is important to understand that various details can play a role in your case and its outcomes. While the best-case scenario would involve avoiding conviction altogether, it is also essential to consider how to reduce the chances that evidence could lead to even more severe sentencing should a conviction take place.

Mandatory minimum sentencing

In some cases, federal crimes have mandatory minimum sentencing. This means that, if you face a conviction for fraud, identity theft or another white-collar crime, the judge has an obligation to sentence you to a specific minimum sentence suited to the particular crime. This applies even if the judge does not think your case deserves that severe of a sentence. Mandatory minimums are set by Congress, not judges.

Federal sentencing guidelines

While mandatory minimums may seem too harsh in some cases, the possibility also exists that a case deserves a more severe sentence, or the specific crime may not have an applicable mandatory minimum. In such scenarios, a judge will use the federal sentencing guidelines to determine the appropriate sentence. Broadly speaking, the judge will use the guidelines in the following manner:

  • Reviewing the specific guidelines for the appropriate crime to determine the base offense level
  • Taking the associated base offense level number for calculating a sentence
  • Determining whether additional points should be added to or subtracted from the base level number due to the specific details of the case
  • Using the calculated number to determine the suggested sentence based on the guidelines
  • Determining whether any changes to the suggested sentence should apply, which could include decreasing or increasing the severity
  • Consulting federal law to determine whether the guideline sentence is appropriate for these particular circumstances

Because federal judges have the ability to reduce or increase sentencing based upon the guidelines, it is essential for a criminal defense presentation to take this possibility into account. A defense strategy could involve combating evidence that could cause the judge to view you and the case in a more negative light and, in turn, increase the chances of a more severe sentence in the event of a conviction.