Sentencing in Federal Court

One of the more complicated steps of a federal criminal case is dealing with Sentencing. When a criminal defendant accepts a plea offer or is found guilty at trial, the final steps of a case involve sentencing.

Sentencing in federal court is very different than a state court case. At the sentencing hearing, a federal judge will examine a number of different factors in order to determine an appropriate sentence. This includes the facts of the case, the seriousness of the offense, the criminal record of the Defendant, the Sentencing Guideline range, and information provided in a Presentence Investigation Report.

In federal court the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are used to determine a baseline sentence that a Defendant is looking at depending on what happened in the case. A Defendant could also be looking at mandatory minimums or enhancements to their sentence due to prior drug convictions, use of a weapon, use of a minor and/or a lot of other factors that are found in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. This is why it is imperative that an attorney who is experienced in federal court criminal cases helps a Defendant through the sentencing process.

Will I Be Sentenced at the Plea Hearing?

In certain misdemeanor cases a Magistrate Judge might sentence a Defendant at the plea hearing in federal court. Your attorney will let you know if that is the case well in advance of the plea hearing. For the vast majority of cases a sentencing hearing is scheduled around 90 days out from the plea or change of plea hearing.

What Is a Presentence Investigation Report?

Once a sentencing hearing is scheduled, the United States Probation Office will schedule a time to interview a defendant so that a Presentence Investigation Report (“PSR”) can be prepared. The PSR is sent to the Court and both parties and provides a lot of useful information in examining how to sentence a Defendant. The report contains information about the facts of the crime, the applicable sentencing guidelines, statutory minimums and maximums, potential fines, as well as personal data about the Defendant. The personal data includes information about a Defendant’s family history, upbringing, education, work history, and drug and alcohol abuse history. Sometimes there is also information in the PSR about the victim of a crime.

Objections to a Presentence Investigation Report

Once a PSR is prepared, it is circulated to the attorneys for the United States and the Defendant. A Defendant will then have the ability to review their report with their attorney and objections to anything contained in the report will be filed. In many federal jurisdictions, a Defendant will not be sent a copy of the report if they are incarcerated due to the highly sensitive nature of the information contained in the PSR. Many jails will not allow these to be sent to a Defendant for good reason.

Sentencing Memorandums and Sentencing Summary Charts

Defense counsel in the Southern District of California are required to file Sentencing Memorandums and Sentencing Summary Charts at least seven (7) days before a Sentencing Hearing. The Sentencing Memorandum usually will contain arguments for why a Defendant should receive a sentence that is below the Sentencing Guideline range as well as pointing out any discrepancies in the facts of the case. The Summary Chart contains a calculation of the guideline range and usually applies and possible departures also.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were passed by Congress in 1984 as a part of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The goal of the guidelines in part was to eliminate sentencing disparity for Defendants as well as to establish ranges for different types of crimes. The Guidelines have 43 levels of offense seriousness. The higher the level, the more serious the offense.

The first part of examining the Federal Sentencing Guidelines involves establishing a base offense level. This is the starting level that can go up or down depending on specific offense characteristics as well as adjustments and departures. Every federal criminal statute has an associated guideline range and the Federal Sentencing Guideline manual is then used to determine offense characteristics and adjustments.

In addition, the guidelines contain a criminal history category that increases relative to a Defendant’s criminal history. The more criminal convictions that a Defendant has, the higher this number goes, resulting in a more severe sentence. In every federal criminal case, a federal judge will determine the sentencing guideline range before addressing an appropriate sentence.

It is important to understand that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are not mandatory. A court can go above or below the guideline range based on a number of factors involved in a Defendant’s case. One way to explain the guidelines is that this provides a rough estimate of what a Defendant might be looking at for a sentence while the judge will provide the exact measurement.

Federal Sentencing Hearing Process

In the Southern District of California and other federal courts, many of the judges will provide a tentative ruling at the start of the hearing and will sometimes ask counsel to address specific issues in the case. The judge usually starts the hearing by advising counsel of everything that was examined by the Court prior to sentencing. Then counsel for the Defendant will make arguments about why a sentence should be below the guideline range and even specific recommendations for placement or an alternative sentence. Then the Defendant is allowed to speak on their own behalf. The United States Attorney then will make arguments for what they believe the appropriate sentence might be and U.S. Probation is given the opportunity to weigh in on a potential sentence.

Once everyone has had the opportunity to address the Court, a calculation of the sentencing guideline range is performed by the Court. Then the Court will examine adjustments, departures, and factors in the particular case that warrant a specific sentence. The Court will then decide the appropriate sentence and whether any fines or supervised release after a jail sentence are warranted.

Contact a Federal Criminal Attorney Today

To get more help with your case or to get help for a family member, contact an attorney from Rist Law Office to discuss your case further. Our office handles all types of federal criminal defense cases and we are more than happy to examine all aspects of a case to provide advice as to how to proceed with representation. Call us today at (619) 377-4660.

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