What are Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

 Posted on November 22, 2023 in Federal Crimes

Blog ImageThe United States Sentencing Commission publishes guidelines to determine sentencing for offenders of both felonies and misdemeanors. These guidelines have been developed by federal courts and establish a uniform punishment policy for convicts. 

If you have recently been convicted of a crime, you may be concerned about how much prison time you may need to serve. Our Chicago federal criminal lawyer would like to give you an overview of federal sentencing guidelines.

Overview of Federal Sentencing

The guidelines for federal sentencing take the following under consideration:

Offense Seriousness

There are 43 levels of offense seriousness, with more serious crimes assigned a higher level.

Base Offense Level

Each type of crime is assigned a base offense level, with more serious crimes being given a higher level.

Specific Offense Characteristics

Each type of crime has specific characteristics that may increase or decrease the base offense level. 


Adjustments may include what role the offender played in the crime, victim vulnerability, obstruction of justice, if the offender is convicted on multiple counts, and if the offender accepted responsibility for his or her misconduct. 

Criminal History

If the offender has a criminal history, this will increase prison time. Criminal history is based on six categories, with Category I including many first-time offenders and Category VI including offenders with serious criminal histories.

Why Were Federal Sentencing Guidelines Developed?

Prior to when Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, there was no uniform sentencing for offenders. Federal judges could impose sentences that they deemed to be fair and equitable as long as the sentence term did not exceed statutory limits.

The House passed the bill in 1984, simultaneously creating the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) to carry out the terms of the Act. The Sentencing Reform Act gave the USSC the power to develop guidelines and sentencing policies that all federal judges must follow.

Aggravating or Mitigating Factors

The court may depart from the sentencing range specified in federal sentencing guidelines if the crime involves any aggravating or mitigating factors. 

Aggravating factors increase a criminal’s culpability. Common examples that would increase a defendant’s sentence would include:

  • If you played a significant role in the crime
  • If you used a deadly weapon 
  • If the victim was an elderly person or had a physical or mental disability
  • If the offender prevented authorities from collecting evidence as part of the criminal investigation (obstruction of justice)
  • If the offender harmed multiple victims
  • If the offender had a past criminal history
  • If, during the commission of the crime, you caused serious bodily harm or death 
  • If you employed minors to help you carry out the crime

Conversely, mitigating factors decrease a criminal’s culpability. Common examples of mitigating factors that would decrease a defendant’s sentence would include:

  • If you played a minor role in the crime
  • If you have a mental illness 
  • If you cooperated with authorities during the investigation
  • If you were provoked or emotionally distraught 
  • If you are a first-time offender
  • If your family life or upbringing was difficult (i.e. if you were abused as a child)
  • If you have a substance addiction (alcohol or recreational drugs)
  • If the crime was committed as a relative necessity (i.e., to feed your family)

A Chicago federal criminal lawyer will evaluate your case to determine what legal options may be available given your circumstances.

Place Your Trust in an Experienced Chicago, IL, Federal Criminal Lawyer

If you have been charged with a federal crime, you need experience you can trust. A Chicago, IL, federal criminal attorney understands criminal laws and will be able to give you the best possible outcome. Contact Law Offices of Hal M. Garfinkel LLC, Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney today online or by calling 312-629-0669 to schedule your free consultation. 

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