Although federal judges have a considerable amount of leeway when determining a sentence, the court system does have guidelines for the process. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines, according to the Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute, allow judges to calibrate sentences based on factors that relate to the defendant’s guilt and the harm caused by the offense.
A judge may not adhere strictly to the Guidelines, but he or she will have to explain any deviation from them. This may be particularly relevant if the defendant appeals the decision, as the Court of Appeals will review how the judge applied the Guidelines to determine if the sentence was reasonable.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission explains that every type of crime has a base offense level assigned to it, with low-level offenses having low numbers, and more serious crimes ranging as high as level 43.
One of the factors that can increase or decrease the base level offense includes the amount of loss the offense causes. For example, if someone commits fraud and it involves a $6,000 loss, it would increase the base offense level of 7 to a level 9, which would warrant a longer prison sentence and higher penalties. If the loss were $50,000, the offense level would increase to 13.
Adjustments may also affect the offense level. A judge may decrease or increase the offense level based on the defendant’s role in committing the crime, factors related to the victim such as age or vulnerability, and obstruction of justice.
A judge may need to adjust the offense level to cover multiple convictions. The most serious conviction provides the base level, and then the judge adds levels incrementally for the other offenses.
If the defendant accepts responsibility for the criminal action, the judge may lower the offense level by two. The defendant may admit to his or her role, make restitution before the verdict or plead guilty to be considered for this reduction.