Understanding Felony Sentencing in the Federal Court System
If you or a loved one has been charged with a federal crime, it is very important to understand all the elements that go into a potential sentence if found guilty. An experienced defense attorney can help explain all of the possible ranges of outcomes.
A government agency called the United States Sentencing Commission has outlined sentencing standards for all federal felonies. All sentences are based on a combination of the severity of the crime as well as the criminal history of the person charged with the crime. Let’s see how this works.
Criminal History Points
To determine how the courts will view the criminal history of a defendant, they have created a statistic called Criminal History Points. To determine how many Criminal History Points someone has, you add the following:
- 3 Points for every prison sentence served over one year in duration
- 2 Points for every prison sentence served between sixty days and one year in duration
- 1 Point for every prison sentence served less than sixty days in duration
- 2 Points if the crime was committed while the defendant was on parole, on probation, while imprisoned, or on work release
- 2 Points if the crime was committed within two years of a previous sixty day or longer prison sentence
Base Offense Level
All federal felonies have a point total assigned to them ranking the severity of the crime. This number is a base level and can be increased based on certain aspects of the crime (if the crime was committed with a firearm, if the crime was committed with a minor, etc.). Some example base levels are listed below:
|First Degree Murder||43|
|Second Degree Murder||38|
|Conspiracy or Solicitation to Commit Murder||33|
|Assault with Intent to Commit Murder||27|
|Obstructing or Impeding Officers||10|
|Criminal Sex Abuse; Attempt to Commit Criminal Sex Abuse||30|
|Criminal Sexual Abuse of a Minor Under the Age of Sixteen Years Statutory Rape or Attempt to Commit Such Acts||18|
|Abusive Sexual Contact or Attempt to Commit Abusive Sexual Contact||12|
|Failure to Register as a Sex Offender||12|
|Kidnapping, Abduction, Unlawful Restraint||32|
|Demanding or Receiving Ransom Money||23|
|Stalking or Domestic Violence||18|
|Larceny, Embezzlement, and Other Forms of Theft; Offenses Involving Stolen Property; Property Damage or Destruction; Fraud and Deceit; Forgery; Offenses Involving Altered or Counterfeit Instruments Other than Counterfeit Bearer Obligations of the United States||6|
|Burglary of a Residence or a Structure Other than a Residence||12|
|Extortion by Force or Threat of Injury or Serious Damage||18|
|Blackmail and Similar Forms of Extortion||9|
|Unlawful Sale or Transportation of Drug Paraphernalia; Attempt or Conspiracy||12|
|Animal Fighting Offenses||16|
|Promoting a Commercial Sex Act or Prohibited Sexual Conduct with an Individual Other than a Minor||14|
|Promoting a Commercial Sex Act or Prohibited Sexual Conduct with a Minor||34|
|Sexually Exploiting a Minor by Production of Sexually Explicit Visual or Printed Material; Custodian Permitting Minor to Engage in Sexually Explicit Conduct; Advertisement for Minors to Engage in Production||32|
|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||22|
|Obstruction of Justice||14|
|Failure to Appear by Material Witness||6|
|Failure to Appear at Trial by Defendant||6|
|Failure to Appear for Sentencing by Defendant||11|
|Unlawful Receipt, Possession, or Transportation of Firearms or Ammunition; Prohibited Transactions Involving Firearms or Ammunition||12|
|Possessing Contraband in Prison||4|
|Possessing Contraband in Prison (alcohol, U.S. currency, mobile phones, marijuana)||6|
|Possessing Contraband in Prison (a non-firearm weapon, methamphetamine, narcotics)||13|
|Possessing Contraband in Prison (firearm)||23|
Federal Drug Charges
Drug charges are based on the quantity of drugs possessed at the time of arrest. See the tables below:
|Base Level||Heroin (g)||Cocaine (g)||PCP (g)||Methamphetamine (g)|
|Base Level||LSD (g)||Fentanyl (g)||Marijuana (kg)|
|Base Level||Oxycodone, Adderall, Ritalin, Vicodin, Ketamine (units)||Codeine, Anabolic Steroids (units)||Xanax, Valium, Darvocet (units)|
Lastly tax evasion levels are based on the amount of tax money the government deems itself to have lost. See the table below:
|Base Level||At Least|
With the chart below, you can calculate the minimum and maximum amount of imprisonment (in months) that a defendant could be looking at.
First you take the amount of criminal history points the defendant has and that determines which column in the chart you should use. Then go down to the row that represents the base level of the crime committed.
For example, a first-time offender who is being charged with robbery would use the left-hand column (labeled “0,1”, go down to the row for 20 base level points (which is the amount assigned to robbery), and that defendant would be looking at between 33 and 41 months in prison. See the table below:
|Criminal History Points|
|Offense Level||0, 1||2,3||4,5,6||7,8,9||10,11,12||13+|
The judges must start with these ranges of allowable sentences, but is allowed to depart from the guidelines only when it finds “an aggravating or mitigating circumstance of a kind, or to a degree, not adequately taken into consideration by the Sentencing Commission in formulating the guidelines that should result in a sentence different from that described.” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(b)
So, if the defendant was the organizer or ringleader of the crime, the sentence could be longer. But, if the defendant was a minor participant in the crime, the sentence could be shorter as well.
Judges are not permitted to depart from the standard sentences for any reasons based on race, sex, national origin, creed, religion, socio-economic status, lack of guidance as a youth, physical condition, or addictions.
Facing Federal Charges is Serious
If you or a loved one finds themselves charged with a federal felony, it is imperative that you speak with a qualified defense attorney.
Twibell Pierson Criminal Law has handled many federal cases in its history, and will work with any defendant in ensuring the best possible outcome during the federal criminal process. Only by having experienced representation can someone navigate these very dangerous and confusing waters.