By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal
The federal sentencing guideline is an elaborate and detailed chart which are designed to make federal sentencing uniform – or close to it – across the country.
Here is the current sentencing table (November, 2018):
Interpreting The Guidelines
This is the million dollar question. Literally. There is an entire manual published by the United States Sentencing Commission (“USSC”) discussing how to interpret the guidelines. You can visit them here. Each of the numbers in the center of the chart are the range months in federal prison a person could be sentenced to serve.
Base Offense Level
Very Generally Speaking, the column on the far left is labeled “offense level.” Every federal offense is given a starting level and this level can be adjusted upwards or downwards based on various factors in the case.
For example, a person typically has their base offense level lessened if they cooperate with the government. A person normally gets their base level increased if there are aggravating factors for their offense – such as they took a leadership role in a conspiracy.
Criminal History Category
The row at the top of the chart is for criminal history points. The more trouble the person has been in throughout their life, the higher it can kick the sentence range.
The Guidelines are Advisory – Not Mandatory
The USSC was created by congress as an independent branch of the judiciary in the mid 1980’s. They conceived of the sentencing guidelines and the guidelines were mandatory for judges to follow until the US Supreme Court ruled the right to trial by jury required the guidelines to be advisory only. See United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005).
Though advisory, they are still typically followed. Federal judges can and often do issue “downward departures” from the sentencing ranges for mitigating circumstances.
*Jeremy Rosenthal is certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He has been designated as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.