Understanding Federal Court and its Federal Sentencing Guidelines

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Posted in On May 24, 2013

Federal Court, Federal Crimes & Federal Sentencing

A great lawyer once said, “If the criminal justice system was compared to baseball, being charged at the state level would be tee-ball league. Being charged at the federal level would be the majors.”  Whether it’s the complex rules of procedure, the nuanced statutory offenses, the detailed levels of crimes, and/or the harsh range of penalties as comparable to similar state crimes, the federal system was designed to be efficient, effective, and exacting. As such, if you find yourself in a situation where you are facing federal charges, it’s essential that you hire an attorney who can navigate the federal waters with a firm understanding of the policies, procedures, and players in the judicial system. The Indianapolis Criminal Defense Attorneys at Banks & Brower have the experience you need in Federal Court.
One of the first questions (other than “what am I charged with?”) is always going to be, “what are the penalties if I’m proven guilty of the offense?” At the state level, the penalties are very easy to understand and are statutorily defined in I.C. 35-50-2. The federal system is defined, but not so easily construed. The federal judiciaries, and the U.S. Attorney’s office, abide by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. Unlike the state level where all levels of crimes can be neatly fit on a small chart, the federal guidelines are much more fluid and complex. For a good overview article provided by the Federal Defenders Office, click here.
As such, before you plead guilty, or go to trial, it’s essential you understand not only how the process will work, but also the range of punishment as well. This blog will focus on the sentencing part of your federal case only. The very first step in understanding the Sentencing Guideline is to print off a copy of the Sentencing Table (click here to view it), while also having a copy of the latest Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual (click here to view it). The Sentencing Table helps you understand the length of sentence you can expect, while the guideline explains the crimes and related penalties, the processes and procedures, and provides general information about the federal system.
When reviewing the sentencing table, you will find a left-hand side of the chart with “Offense Level” and Zones A-D. At the top of the chart, you will find the title “Criminal History Categories” ranging from I to VI. The numbers in the middle of the chart represent the ranges of sentences you can serves in terms of months, NOT YEARS.
Any federal crime will fall within one of the Offense Levels on the chart. And, the lower the Offense Level, the more minor the offense. For example, Offense Level 1 is the lowest, most minor federal offense you can be charge with, while Offense Level 43 is the highest, most serious offense. Offense Level 1 has a minimum sentencing range of 0-6 months, while Level 43 has a sentencing range of 360 months to life.
As for the Criminal History Categories, you fall under Category I if you have 1 or less criminal convictions in the past. Category II is for those with 2 or 3 convictions. Category III is for people with 4-6 offenses. Category IV is for defendants with 7-9 convictions. Category V is meant for those with 10-12 convictions, while Category IV represents those that have 13 or more convictions.
With all of that said, you might think the chart is relatively easy to understand. Just find your level of crime as espoused in the guideline with your left index finger, find the category you fit under for your criminal history with your right index finger, and find the sentencing range where the two meet. It’s that easy, right? Wrong. The sentencing range can be “adjusted” depending on the particular circumstances/facts of your case.
By way of example, if you are accused of possession of child pornography at the federal level, the Offense Level starts at a level 18 (click here to view this example), which has a sentencing range of 27-33 months. For this example, the manual reads as follows:

§2G2.2. Trafficking in Material Involving the Sexual Exploitation of a Minor; Receiving,
Transporting, Shipping, Soliciting, or Advertising Material Involving the Sexual
Exploitation of a Minor; Possessing Material Involving the Sexual Exploitation of
a Minor with Intent to Traffic; Possessing Material Involving the Sexual Exploitation of a Minor
(a) Base Offense Level:
(1) 18, if the defendant is convicted of 18 U.S.C. § 1466A(b), § 2252(a)(4), § 2252A(a)(5), or § 2252A(a)(7).

(2) 22, otherwise.

However, that range can be adjusted up or down depending on things like (but not limited to): (1) if the defendant only received the images, but didn’t intend to distribute them, that lowers the level by 2, (2) if the age of the child depicted in the photo is under 12, the level is increased by 2, (3) if you distribute child pornography for pecuniary gain, that raises the level by 5, (4) if the material is distributed to another minor, that increases the level by 5 again, (2) if a computer was involved, the level is increased by 2, and (3) the number of pictures — anywhere from 2-5 levels. However, if you plead guilty rather than be convicted at trial, you decrease your Offense Level by 3 as well.
On rare occasions, a judge may also “depart” from the sentencing guidelines. That can go both ways, i.e. recommending a sentence below the statutory range and/or recommending a sentence above the given ranges. This practice is rare, and there are certain pleas that take that ability away from a judge as well. As anyone can see, just determining what level you are at is incredibly complicated, and often becomes a term of negotiation/debate with the attorney representing the federal government or the judges themselves.
However, if parties agree as to the sentencing range, and a plea is entered into, sentencing typically is set out 70 or more days. During the time period between the plea being tendered and the sentencing date itself, the U.S. Probation Office will interview the defendant (with his attorney present if desired). That interview process was established as a means to help a judge determine what an appropriate sentence is. You have no statutory obligation to answer any of their questions, and your attorney may advise you not to in some situations — however, for the most part, this process can be essential in receiving a lighter sentence. They can even ask to interview members of your family and friends as well.
After that interview process is concluded, the judge is provided a Presentence Report. That report will relay to the judge the answers to questions you were asked in that interview. For example, it will list your name, your background, your family, health, facts of your case, jobs/careers, and criminal history. The judge will evaluate your potential sentence at the sentencing hearing based on all of these factors as well as evidence put forth by your own lawyer and the prosecutor. You even have the ability to speak at your own hearing — though you are not required to. Many defendants choose rather to write a letter beforehand for the judge to read.
At that point, the arguing is over and the judge will make up their own mind and will sentence you accordingly. Often times the judge will follow the terms of the plea and will find a relative middle ground. In so doing, the judge will then issue and sign a Judgment, this will then be sent to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. At this point, the only thing left is to serve sentence as ordered (the hardest part of course). Typically, you will serve 85% of your total sentence if you are awarded the 15% good time credit — though this is not automatic.
Without question, it’s easy to see why federal court is considered the “major leagues.” As such, you want to hire a lawyer that can handle the case appropriately. Therefore, it’s essential you hire an attorney who understands and can effectively extrapolate the sentencing ranges espoused in the federal sentencing guidelines. Give the Indianapolis Criminal Defense Attorneys at Banks & Brower a call, we will defend your rights every step of the way and will lead you through your federal case with the care and attention you deserve. Call us today at 317.870.0019.