What are Criminal Sentencing Guidelines?

Have you ever wondered how a judge determines the length of a defendant’s sentence? In the U.S. federal courts, judges use what is called the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, or USSG. The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines work much like a mathematical formula and calculate prison terms based upon a number of factors.

What is a Base Level?

Determining the length of a sentence starts with what is known as the base level. Every crime is assigned a certain base level pursuant to Chapter Two of the USSG. The more serious a crime is, the higher its level will be. Base levels can be increased or decreased depending on offense characteristics and circumstances surrounding the crime.

Offense characteristics and circumstances can vary from one crime to another, and they are listed along with the crime’s assigned base level. For example, a robbery is assigned a base level of 20; however, if a firearm was involved, the base level can increase to 25 or 27.

Can Base Levels be Increased or Decreased?

Base levels can increase or decrease due to various adjustments as well. One such adjustment is victim-related. Typically, if the victim was young, had a mental disorder or was restrained, the base level will increase. Your role in the crime can increase or decrease the base level as well.

If you obstructed justice in any way, such as by threatening witnesses or destroying evidence, the base level will increase. Finally, the base level can go down if you:

  • Paid restitution
  • Pleaded guilty to the crime
  • Accepted sole responsibility for your crime
  • Admitted that you were an accomplice

Examining the Defendant’s Criminal History

After a base level has been assigned to a crime, the next step is to examine the defendant’s criminal history. Pursuant to Chapter Four of the Sentencing Guidelines, defendants are placed into one of six different categories depending on their criminal history. The more extensive a criminal record is, the higher the category will be.

Figuring the Sentencing Range

The final step in computing the length of a sentence is to figure the final offense level. This is done by adding or subtracting any offense characteristics and/or adjustments to or from the base level. The sentencing table will then show the sentencing range, which is the point where the final offense level and criminal history category meet.

What is Departure?

The sentence that a defendant will actually receive can vary depending on any mitigating or aggravating circumstances surrounding the crime. This is known as departure. Aggravating circumstances can increase a sentence, and they include such things as using firearms or killing a victim.

Mitigating factors can lead to a shorter sentence, and they include such things as mental illnesses or helping with a criminal investigation. After a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, these guidelines were determined to be advisory only. This means that judges must look at the guidelines, do the calculations and explain their reasons for sentencing.

For more information pertaining to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, be sure to get in touch with The Law Office of Matthew D. Sharp at 713-868-6100.