If you have been charged with a federal offense, you need a criminal defense attorney who understands the federal sentencing guidelines. These guidelines will determine how the sentencing judge will determine punishment. To the unacquainted, these guidelines can seem challenging, but because they have been around since the mid 1980’s, much has been published to explain their apparent mystery, and most judges have long since accepted the transparency and general uniformity that these guidelines provide.

The guidelines focal point, showing the sentencing ranges is the Sentencing Table. This Sentencing Table works on two axis: offense level on the vertical side, and criminal history on the horizontal.

View the 2012 Federal Sentencing Guideline Table on the the U.S. Sentencing Commission web site.

Offense level: Each federal offense’s statute is mapped to a guideline’s base offense level. Other specific facts agreed that occurred in the offense being sentenced will dictate changes, either up or down in that base offense level. For example, if the offense is robbery, bodily injury will increase the offense level, as will theft of a large amount of money, called “amount of loss” by the guidelines. If more than one person is involved in the offense charged, this offense level will also be affected by the defendant’s role in the crime: the offense level will decrease if a “mitigating role” and increase if the defendant is in an “aggravating role,” such as a ringleader. Also, the role of the victim affects the offense level: being hate crime motivated, victim restrained, to a victim of terrorism. Specific guideline application notes exist for each offense, as well.

Criminal History:The defendant’s criminal history plays a major role in sentence determination. For example, a first time offender for an offense getting a sentencing range of 0-6 months, and one with an extensive criminal history getting a range of 18-24 months. This difference in criminal history makes a difference in four times the maximum sentence.

This history score is determined by prior convictions and sentences which go back as many as 15 years for most offenses which are not excluded by law, and can even encompass juvenile convictions under some circumstances, especially if convicted in adult court. Each qualifying conviction will earn the defendant at least one point, and these one point convictions are capped at a maximum of four points. A conviction where the defendant received a sentence of over 60 days incarceration will earn two points. Finally, a felony conviction with a sentence imposed of over 13 months, can earn three points. These conviction points are totaled and converted to one of the six criminal history categories.

While a defendant cannot do anything to change his/her criminal history, a competent defense attorney can scrutinize and challenge these convictions to ensure they accurately reflect the facts of the convictions that the federal probation officer found during his pre-sentence investigation. The prosecutor must be able to prove these facts in criminal history. A good criminal defense attorney knows how to potentially lower a federal sentence by working all aspects of a case, and being able to hold a federal prosecutor to his burden of proving what he/she must be able to prove.

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