Understanding Felony Sentencing in the Federal Court System
If you were charged with a federal crime, it is essential to understand all the elements that go into a potential sentence. An experienced defense attorney can help explain all of the possible sentencing outcomes.
The United States Sentencing Commission has outlined sentencing standards for all federal felonies. All sentences are based on a combination of two factors, the severity of the crime and the offender’s criminal history. Let’s see how this works.
Criminal History Points
To determine how the courts will view a defendant’s criminal history, they have created a Criminal History Points statistic. To calculate someone’s Criminal History Points, you add the following:
- 3 Points for every sentence served over one year in duration
- 2 Points for every sentence served between sixty days and one year in duration
- 1 Point for every sentence served less than sixty days in duration
- 2 Points if the crime was committed while the defendant was on parole, probation, 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 are assigned a point total, ranking the severity of the crime. This number is a base level and can be increased based on specific 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/Solicitation to Commit Murder||33|
|Assault with Intent to Commit Murder||27|
|Criminal Sex Abuse/Attempt to Commit||30|
|Criminal Sexual Abuse of a Minor Under the Age of Sixteen Years/Statutory Rape/Attempt to Commit Such Acts||18|
|Abusive Sexual Contact/Attempt to Commit||12|
|Failure to Register as a Sex Offender||12|
|Kidnapping, Abduction, Unlawful Restraint||32|
|Demanding/Receiving Ransom Money||23|
|Larceny, Embezzlement, and Other Forms of Theft; Offenses Involving Stolen Property; Property Damage/Destruction; Fraud/Deceit; Forgery; Offenses Involving Altered/Counterfeit Instruments Other than Counterfeit Bearer Obligations of the United States||6|
|Burglary of Residence/Structure Other than Residence||12|
|Extortion by Force/Threat of Injury or Serious Damage||18|
|Blackmail/Similar Forms of Extortion||9|
|Unlawful Sale/Transportation of Drug Paraphernalia; Attempt/Conspiracy||12|
|Animal Fighting Offenses||16|
|Promoting Commercial Sex Act/Prohibited Sexual Conduct with an Individual Other than a Minor||14|
|Promoting Commercial Sex Act/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/Material Witness||6|
|Failure to Appear at Trial/Defendant||6|
|Failure to Appear for Sentencing/Defendant||11|
|Unlawful Receipt, Possession/Transportation of Firearms/Ammunition; Prohibited Transactions Involving Firearms/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 facing.
First, you take the number of criminal history points the defendant has, which 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 facing 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. They are allowed to depart from the guidelines in the presence of “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.
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, you should 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 dangerous and confusing waters.