This is part I of a IV-part series discussing various aspects of the United States Sentencing Guidelines.
What are the Sentencing Guidelines?
The United States Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”) are a series of rules promulgated by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. At their core, they are a method of assigning points to offenses and to a defendant’s criminal history. The combination of offense points and criminal history points are then used to calculate a Guideline range measured in months (e.g., 63-78 months). Before 2005, absent specific legal grounds to do otherwise, a sentencing judge was required to impose a sentence within the Guideline range. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in U.S. v. Booker, the Guidelines have become “advisory”, meaning that the sentencing judge must consider the Guidelines in determining a sentencing, but is not required to impose a sentence within the Guideline Range.
How Are Federal Sentencing Guidelines Calculated?
Federal sentencing Guideline ranges are calculated by first assigning a number of points to the offense or offenses that a person has been convicted of or pleaded guilty to, and then assigning a number of points to a person’s criminal history. Where the two point levels intersect on the Sentencing Table (found in the U.S. Sentencing Commission Guidelines Manual), where the offense points are the Y-axis and the criminal history points are the X-axis, determines the Guideline range. For example, a defendant with 15 offense points and 5 criminal history points faces a Guideline Range of 24-30 months.
Offense points are determined by first finding the base offense level, which varies generally depending upon the nature and severity of the crime. In the context of drug crimes, for example, the base offense level is dependent heavily on the type and quantity of the drugs in question. For financial crimes, it is dependent largely on the amount of money at issue. The base offense level is then modified, by adding or taking away points depending upon specific characteristics of the offense recognized by the guidelines. For example, in a robbery case, points may be added if a person was injured in the course of the robbery.