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Federal vs. State Sentencing Guidelines

federal judge

One of the most intimidating things about being charged with a crime in federal court is the prospect of being sentenced according to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  While federal judges are not required to follow the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, most of the time they do.  Because these guidelines often recommend sentences that are much longer than those handed out by state court judges, the result is that federal defendants often end up receiving sentences that are much longer than they would have had they been sentenced in state court.  

State Sentencing Process

In Wisconsin state court, the sentencing process is rather straightforward.  In determining a sentence, the judge will consider a standardized list of factors that are relevant to sentencing, including:

  • The character of the defendant
  • The gravity of the offense
  • The need to protect the public

Other than considering the proper factors, there is little guidance directing a state judge towards any particular sentence.

Federal Sentencing Process

The federal sentencing process is much more complex, and the ultimate sentence depends in large part upon the range calculated using the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  The Federal Sentencing Guidelines seek to assign two scores to every defendant:

  1. One for the relevant criminal conduct for which they are being sentenced,
  2. The other for the defendant's past criminal conduct.

Based on these two scores, the Guidelines will provide a recommended sentencing range applicable for that defendant.  While the judge is not required to sentence a defendant within the range recommended by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, if the judge chooses to sentence either above or below this range, they must explain their reasoning.  Some judges are more likely than others to deviate from the recommended range, but generally most federal sentences are within the calculated guideline range.

Calculating the Offense Level

Calculating the appropriate offense level and criminal history is often complicated and confusing.  By way of example, if a judge finds that an individual was the organizer of a criminal enterprise, as opposed to merely a supervisor or manger of the enterprise it will increase the defendant's offense level score. For almost every aspect of a crime, there are various factors that will cause the defendant's offense level score to increase or decrease. Because of the likelihood that a federal sentence will be within the range calculated using the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, it is crucial that a defendant facing a federal prosecution obtain a defense attorney who is knowledgeable and has experience using the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

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