Federal Sentencing for Criminal Matters

by | Feb 15, 2018 | Blog Posts, Federal Criminal Defense

Federal Sentencing for Criminal Mattersfederal sentencing

Federal sentencing is very complicated for someone who is not trained to deal with it. It is something that would confuse and frustrate most of the general public.  It is always best to hire a criminal defense lawyer if you have been charged with a crime, but it may even be more important if you are charged with a federal crime.

Unlike state crimes that have different punishments depending on the jurisdiction where they were committed, federal sentencing is uniform throughout the country, meaning whether you were convicted of a crime in North Carolina, Florida, or Wyoming, the same penalties would be assessed.  This is because Federal crimes are punished in accordance with the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Federal judges are not free to apply whatever sentences they would like on a whim. They must adhere to certain guidelines, and these guidelines are clearly defined.

The guidelines follow a sentencing table that is organized and categorized into 43 levels of offenses (level 1 being the least severe and level 43 being the most severe).  These levels will determine how much time in prison the defendant has to serve if he or she is convicted.  The most an attorney can do for you, if you are convicted, is make sure that the guidelines are applied to your advantage as much as possible.

How Sentencing guidelines are used are set forth by Statute 18 U.S.C. § 3553, and instructed as follows:

**This is not an all-inclusive list, but rather an illustration for educational purposes, a federal criminal defense attorney would be able to explain the situation and the determinations in a much greater detail**

  • Determine what guideline the charged offense falls under
  • Determine the base offense level and apply any appropriate specific offense characteristics, cross references, and special instructions contained in the particular guideline,
  • Apply any adjustments as appropriate to victim, role, and obstruction of justice. (This is the best opportunity for the defendant to receive some considerations for a reduced level, however, this can also be a step in which the level may become higher, depending on the facts). For example:
  • There is a possibility of a level reduction if the defendant had a minor role in the crime.
  • There is a possibility of a level increase if the defendant used a weapon in the commission of the crime.

Other considerations involving federal sentencing

There are several other considerations involving federal sentencing, the main one being the prior criminal history of the defendant. Meaning, the more prior convictions the defendant has, the more time he or she can potentially face in prison.  Another consideration is what is known as the “federal safety valve”, which we discuss below.

Safety Valve

This allows for the defendant to be sentenced below the statutory mandatory minimum if they meet all the following criteria:

  • The defendant does not have more than one criminal history point.
  • The defendant did not use violence or credible threats of violence or possess a firearm or other dangerous weapon in connection with the offense.
  • The offense did not result in death or serious bodily injury to any person.
  • The defendant was not the organizer, leader, manager or supervisor of other in the offense.
  • The defendant was truthfully debriefed (meaning he gave the federal government all relevant information requested with regard to the charged crime).

Substantial Assistance

Some federal defendants may be eligible to receive a federal sentence reduction on the basis on providing “substantial assistance”. To read more about substantial assistance and federal sentence reductions, click here.


This is a very basic and very broad overview of just some of the considerations of federal sentencing.  Federal crimes are typically serious and complicated and are if you find yourself facing federal charges, you would be best served by having a federal criminal defense lawyer.  At Gilles Law, we handle both state and federal criminal law and both North Carolina and South Carolina. Contact us.

DISCLAIMER – This forum is intended for general questions and comments about the particular law or topic. Comments are public and are not protected by confidentiality or attorney-client privilege; therefore, they can be used against you in court. Please refrain from revealing your identify or specifics about any actual criminal case. No attorney-client relationship is created in this forum.

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