Persons convicted of federal crimes are often sentenced to prison. One question I hear frequently is: "How long will I be in prison?". The answer is never simple. Federal judges consider a variety of issues and have the final determination as to what will be an appropriate sentence in each case. Among the most significant factors considered by any federal judge are the statutorily mandated punishment range and the United States Sentencing Guideline recommended punishment range.
Statutory Punishment Ranges
The word statute describes a law that has been passed by Congress and signed by the President. Federal judges are bound by statutes in regards to sentencing criminal defendants. One example of a federal sentencing statute involves possession with intent to distribute over five (5) kilograms of cocaine. Persons convicted of possession of cocaine in a quantity greater than (5) kilos who meant to distribute that amount are subject to a minimum of ten (10) years in prison up to a life sentence.
Accordingly, if someone is convicted of possessing cocaine of more than (5) kilograms and intending to distribute such an amount, a federal judge will not be able to sentence that person to less than ten (10) years in prison. There is a common exception known as the "safety valve" which permits judges to sentence defendants to less than the statutory minimum if they have no significant prior criminal history and co-operate with the government. Federal judges have a large amount of discretion when it comes to sentencing, although their discretion is limited to what a statute allows. This means that if statutes do not permit a sentence below 10 years, a federal judge simply cannot grant a sentence below ten years.
Guideline Punishment Ranges
Unlike statutes, the United States Sentencing Guidelines are not binding upon federal judges; however, they are advisory and federal judges are required to take them into consideration when sentencing convicted persons. The sentencing ranges provided by the Guidelines manual are often much narrower than the sentencing ranges created by statute. There are many important Supreme Court cases describing the role of the Sentencing Guidelines and how they affect Federal punishment.
Using again the example of a person having cocaine in an amount that is greater than five (5) kilograms and did intend to distribute that cocaine, there can be large variances in Sentencing Guideline ranges because of factors such as the overall drug quantity, the leadership role of that particular defendant, and the criminal history of each defendant.
Accordingly, a person with no criminal history and minor involvement in a case involving being apprehended with an amount greater than (5) kilograms and who did plan to distribute that cocaine will have a lower federal sentencing guideline recommendation than someone who is a leader or organizer with a more extensive criminal history.
Further, a person convicted of being in possession with intent to distribute 6 kilograms of cocaine will get a lower sentencing guideline recommendation than a person convicted of being in possession of 1000 kilograms of cocaine.
After a defendant has been found guilty either after a trial or a plea, federal criminal defense lawyers will spend a large portion of their time dealing with sentencing issues, the key theme being mitigation of the sentence. Mitigation refers to lessening or reducing the sentence. Federal criminal defense attorneys knowledgeable about the interaction between sentencing statutes and sentencing guidelines will work with their clients to come up with mitigation strategies to help keep the sentence as low as possible.
Federal sentencing mitigation requires that defendants, through their federal criminal defense lawyers, file appropriate motions, objections, and other evidence with the Federal Court prior to their sentencing date. At the final sentencing hearing, a judge will only be able to consider what has been properly presented to them. It is important that a defendant and their defense attorney work together to tell their side of the story so that the federal judge can make a fair decision as to an appropriate sentence.
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