How Do the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Come into Play in a Federal Criminal Case?

Despite the best efforts of the most skilled criminal defense attorney one can find, federal juries often return guilty verdicts. However, experienced legal counsel can still make a significant impact for defendants during the sentencing phase. One of the most important components of the sentencing phase in federal cases is the U.S. Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

An important note before we explain more about the Guidelines is that they are no longer mandatory. A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case ruled that, because portions of the Guidelines rely on findings not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, judges could not solely rely on them. In other words, the Court found that the Guidelines violated a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. 

The Guidelines are now considered to be advisory in nature and only apply to federal felonies and Class A misdemeanors. 

Criminal History Score

A key component of the Guidelines is the criminal history categories. A federal defendant accrues points for prior convictions which will generally impact the ultimate sentence.. 

A variety of factors affect points given for particular sentences, but the premise is simple: the more prior sentences, the greater the criminal history score. The greater the criminal history score, the heavier the sentence. The Guidelines provide for six criminal history categories.

Sentencing Zones

The other primary factor judges consider when sentencing federal offenders (besides criminal history) is the perceived severity of the crime. Each crime covered under the Guidelines is given an offense level, of which there are 43. 

After combining the offense level (which increases upon the severity of the crime) with the criminal history score, federal offenders can determine their sentencing zone. Judges use the sentencing table to determine the appropriate sentencing range. Ranges at the lower end could cap out at six months, while the most severe ranges end at life in prison. 

There are other enhancements or mitigating factors which also may apply depending on the pertinent facts and the applicable law.  Under certain circumstances an attorney may successfully argue that a particular defendant should have a lower guideline based on a minor or minimal role in the crime.

Again, the Guidelines are only meant to serve in an advisory capacity for federal judges.


Although the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are no longer mandatory, many judges are closely informed by them when sentencing individuals convicted of federal crimes. Since the Guidelines were made advisory, attorneys have a greater opportunity to argue for a lower sentence based on many life factors or experiences of their individual clients.  Proper skillful lawyering at the sentencing stage is crucial in obtaining the best possible sentence given all the facts and circumstances.

Therefore, it is immensely helpful in your case to have experienced attorneys who understand the contours of the Guidelines and effective ways of presenting mitigating factors at sentencing. Weisberg Kainen Mark, PL features attorneys who have been defending clients since before the Federal Sentencing Guidelines were promulgated in 1987. Give us a call at (305) 374-5544 for professional and aggressive representation.

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