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Federal Sentencing Guidelines Overview
posted on 11/28/23

The United States Sentencing Commission (The Commission) was created in 1984 as part of the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) provisions of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. In 1987, The Commission formulated national sentencing guidelines as Congress had decided that:

  1. Federal judges needed sentencing structure.
  2. Punishment administration needed to be “certain.”
  3. Penalties for violent, repeat offenders and white-collar criminals needed to be treated more seriously.

Therefore, in 1987, The Commission created federal sentencing guidelines that federal judges were told to follow. The SRA survived a number of constitutional challenges as the guidelines were ruled constitutional in Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361 (1989), 

Guidelines Not Mandatory

The guidelines are not mandatory. The Supreme Court has ruled that the guidelines are only advisory and that federal judges are not bound by them. If a judge decides to increase or decrease a sentence in relation to the sentencing guides, that judge must explain the factors that guided the decision to depart from the federal sentencing guidelines.

How the Guidelines Work

The Commission-created guidelines rely on the following principles:

  1. Every crime is assigned a starting point for calculating the offense’s seriousness. That is called the base offense level.
  2. The offense level can be increased or decreased by offense specifics, for example:
  3. Was a firearm used?
  4. Did the victim suffer a large loss due to fraud?
  5. If the offender helped obstruct justice, for example, the offense level could increase.
  6. Multiple counts can result in a combined offense level.
  7. If an offender accepts responsibility for the offense, the offense level could be reduced.
  8. Six criminal history categories were created, and offenders are assigned to one category depending on their past record.

Sentencing Table

The Commission created a sentencing table that included the six criminal history categories and four sentencing zones. The zones are:

  1. Fine only, probation, imprisonment.
  2. Fine only, probation, split sentence, or imprisonment.
  3. Split sentence or imprisonment.
  4. Imprisonment.

Sentencing App

In order to make the chart more user-friendly, The Commission has created an online guideline range calculator. The instructions for the guideline calculator are:

Use the Guideline Range Calculator to determine the applicable guideline range from the Sentencing Table (Chapter Five, Part A). First, select the Offense Level (1–43) as determined by applying Chapters Two and Three. Then, select the Criminal History Category (I–VI) as determined by applying Chapter Four, Part A.

Results are displayed in months of imprisonment. “Life” means life imprisonment.

For example, a “1” offense level and a criminal history category (expressed as points) of “1” would equal 0 – 6 months of imprisonment.

Complicated Formulas

If this sounds complicated, it is! At Glasgow & Olsson, we understand that good people sometimes commit crimes. We are aware that individual circumstances may cause a person to make a poor choice that results in a criminal charge. If you are charged with a criminal offense, you need the proper counsel to guide you through the federal criminal justice system. You need experienced criminal lawyers to help you understand your options. 

Seek Qualified Help Today

If you need representation for a criminal charge in Cook County, Glasgow & Olsson is uniquely qualified to help. When you need an attorney experience matters, contact us today to learn how our experience can get you the results you deserve.