Federal Sentencing Guidelines

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The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are a set of non-binding rules established by the United States federal court system in 1987 to provide a uniform sentencing policy for criminal defendants convicted in the federal court system. The guidelines provide for a very precise calibration of sentences depending on a number of factors that relate both to the subjective guilt of the defendant and to the harm caused by their actions; see Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 820 (1991). However, the guidelines are not mandatory because they may result in a sentence based on facts not proven beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury, which would be in violation of the Sixth Amendment (see United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 20 (2005)). The Supreme Court ruled that the guidelines are advisory, and the district court must consider the guidelines but is not bound by them. However, when a judge determines within their discretion to depart from the guidelines, the judge must explain what factors warranted the increased or decreased sentence. When a Court of Appeals reviews a sentence imposed through a proper application of the Guidelines, it may presume the sentence is reasonable; see Rita v. United States, 127 S.Ct. 2456 (2007). The guidelines take into account both the seriousness of the offense and the offender’s criminal history. The guidelines provide 43 levels of offense seriousness, with more serious crimes assigned higher levels.

  • Each type of crime is assigned a base offense level, which serves as the starting point for determining the seriousness of the particular offense.
  • Specific offense characteristics, such as the amount of loss involved in a fraud or the use of a firearm during a robbery, can increase or decrease the base offense level.
  • Adjustments, such as the offender's role in the offense and obstruction of justice, can also increase or decrease the offense level.
  • When there are multiple counts in a conviction, the sentencing guidelines provide instructions on how to achieve a “combined offense level”.
  • The offender's acceptance of responsibility can also be considered, which can decrease the offender's level by two levels.
  • The guidelines also assign each offender to one of six criminal history categories based on their past misconduct.

For more information, see U.S. Sentencing Factors, 18 U.S.C. § 3553, and the United States Sentencing Commission’s Overview of Federal Sentencing Guidelines at USSC.gov.

[Last updated in January of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]