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What are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

Federal criminal offenses include such crimes as securities fraud, international child abduction, drug possession or trafficking and embezzlement to mention just a few. Once convicted of federal crime, a defendant is sentenced according to Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

These guidelines were first drafted in 1987 to give federal judges a handbook of sorts to ensure that sentencing for federal crimes across all district courts in every state was more uniform. These guidelines spell out specific sentences relevant to the circumstances of a crime that is alleged to have been committed.

Despite this, these guidelines remain non-binding. A judge has significant leeway in deciding how he or she is going to ultimately implement these guidelines.

Because factors including subjective guilt and degree of harm can impact a jury's decision making, judges are not required to strictly follow these guidelines. However, judges are required to provide an explanation of the factors they considered before arriving at the sentence they did, whether it is on the lower or higher end of the spectrum.

Should a case be appealed, the Court of Appeals for federal cases will look to ensure that the appropriate guidelines for the crime the defendant was charged with were followed. If it is proven that they were, then the sentence might be upheld as reasonable.

In a federal case, a criminal defense attorney has an opportunity to disprove the aggravating circumstances that are alleged to have accompanied the commission of a crime. In some cases, this may result in an acquittal.

In others, at the very least, this may impact a judge's decision making when handing down a sentence. Providing a strong defense gives a defendant a stronger chance of being sentenced on the lower end of the guidelines outlined above.

Source: law.cornell.edu, "Federal sentencing guidelines," accessed May 10, 2017

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