Understanding The Federal Sentencing Guidelines
“How much time am I facing?” That is almost always the first question a person charged with a crime asks his lawyer. In state court, the answer is usually fairly simple. In federal court, the answer is much more complicated. Most attorneys can tell you what the maximum sentence is, or if the crime carries any sort of mandatory minimum sentence. But that is only half of the equation in federal court. The other half – the half that befuddles those lawyers who aren’t regularly defending federal criminal cases – is the federal sentencing guidelines.
What Are The Federal Sentencing Guidelines?
The federal sentencing guidelines provide the court with a recommended range of imprisonment for a convicted defendant. That range is expressed in terms of months. The guidelines range is determined by matching up the defendant’s “Criminal History Category” with his “Total Offense Level” on a grid.
Seems simple enough, right? In theory, yes. But calculation of the Criminal History Category and Total Offense Level can be quite complicated, and is full of pitfalls for those not well-versed in federal sentencing. The Sentencing Guidelines themselves are the size of a phone book, and an attorney needs to know those guidelines backwards and forwards to be able to give his client accurate advice about the potential sentence. Before hiring a lawyer for a federal criminal case, you need to make sure they understand how the federal sentencing guidelines work, and can explain them to you in simple terms. If they can’t, you shouldn’t be hiring that lawyer. The stakes are too high.
Often times in state court, a prosecutor will make an offer for a certain number of years. Let’s use an example of an offer of a guilty plea with a two-year prison sentence. If the defendant accepts that offer, and the plea is accepted by the judge, the person will get a two year sentence. In other words, in state court, you know what you’re getting if you plead guilty.
It’s not that way in federal court. In federal court, plea offers routinely are for a guilty plea to the crime. Typically, there is no agreement as to sentence. Instead, the plea offer has a recommendation to the court concerning which guidelines apply. That recommendation is not binding on the judge; she can ignore it. Plus, federal plea offers generally provide recommended guidelines pertaining to the Total Offense Level only, with the Criminal History Category remaining unstated.
In short, under a federal plea offer, you don’t know what your sentence is. You don’t even know with certainty what your guidelines range will be.
Decades Of Experience Helping Those Charged With Federal Crimes
That is why it is absolutely critical that you hire a criminal defense lawyer with a thorough understanding of the sentencing guidelines. You need a lawyer who can accurately calculate your guidelines for you. You need a lawyer who can give you a reasonable estimate of what your applicable range would be under any proposed plea offer. And you need a lawyer who can tell you what your range would be if convicted at trial.
You deserve to be well-informed about what you are up against, and how much time you could be facing if convicted. Most criminal defense lawyers won’t set foot in federal court because they don’t understand the sentencing guidelines or how to do the calculations. If you are facing federal charges, you need to make sure to hire a lawyer who really knows his stuff in federal court.
The attorneys at Omega Law have decades of experience defending federal criminal cases. We regularly represent defendants in federal court at trial, on appeal, in post-conviction proceedings, and in supervised release revocation proceedings. We are also available to serve as sentencing consultants if you realize that the criminal defense lawyer that you hired does not have an adequate understanding of the guidelines. We can calculate your guidelines range to provide an estimate of the potential sentence you or your loved one is facing, and work with you to develop a plan to achieve your desired outcome.