What Factors Do Federal Judges Consider When Setting Sentences?

Federal judges refer to sentencing guidelines when considering the term of incarceration to impose after a defendant has been convicted. The guidelines provide sentencing ranges determined by the offense level and the defendant’s criminal history.

Various factors affect these elements, including the following:

  • Characteristics of the crime,
  • Impact on the victim,
  • Defendant’s role, and
  • Defendant’s previous convictions (if any).

Although federal judges consult the guidelines before rendering a sentence, they are not required to adhere to them. They can make upward or downward deviations based on the facts of the case.

Charged with a federal crime in Iowa City? Please call Keegan, Tindal & Jaeger at (319) 499-5524 or submit an online contact form to discuss your case.

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines

The United States Sentencing Commission established and maintains the guidelines federal judges use to determine prison terms. The guidelines are to provide consistency in the way punishments are doled out for similar crimes and defendants.

The recommended prison terms are presented in ranges on a table. The y-axis concerns the offense level. The x-axis concerns the defendant’s criminal history category. The intersection of the two axes indicates the monthly term of imprisonment that should be imposed.

We’ll get more into the specifics of the offense level and criminal history category in a bit. But to illustrate the point above, let’s suppose that someone was convicted of a crime with an offense level of 10 and a criminal history category of IV. The judge will move along the x- and y-axes until the two meet to determine the sentencing range. In this case, the prison term would be 15 to 21 months. The judge can impose a sentence above or below the minimum and maximum if aggravating or mitigating circumstances are present and not covered by the sentencing guidelines.

Various factors are considered to get both the offense level and criminal history category. We’ll discuss those factors below.

The Base Level and Characteristics of the Offense

The first step in determining the sentence for a federal crime is getting the base level for the offense. The base level is the value given to a certain crime without considering other factors. Each federal offense has a specific base level, with more serious crimes having higher values.

Below are some examples of base levels:

  • First-degree murder: 43
  • Kidnapping: 32
  • Criminal sexual abuse of a minor under 16 years of age: 18
  • Aggravated assault: 13

Some offenses also have special characteristics attached to them that can increase or decrease the base level.

The characteristics are unique for different crimes. For instance:

  • Assault:
    • Discharging a firearm during the offense adds 5 points
    • Using a dangerous weapon adds 4 points
    • Brandishing a weapon adds 3 points
    • Causing bodily injury adds 3 points
    • Causing serious injury adds 5 points
  • Criminal sexual abuse of a minor under 16 years of age:
    • The defendant having had custody, care, or supervisory control of the minor adds 4 points
    • Using electronic communication to induce the minor adds 2 points
  • Kidnapping:
    • Holding the victim for ransom or making a demand adds 6 points
    • Causing permanent or life-threatening injuries to the victim adds 4 points
    • Causing the victim to suffer serious injury adds 2 points
    • Causing any other injury adds 3 points
    • Using a dangerous weapon adds 2 points
    • Not releasing the victim within 30 days adds 6 points

The offense level is initially obtained by adding the base level points to the points associated with special characteristics. For instance, if the defendant was charged with a kidnapping offense involving the use of a dangerous weapon, the offense level is 34 (32 base-level points plus 2 special characteristic points).

The sentencing consideration is not complete at this point. The judge must weigh many other factors.

The Impact on the Victim and Obstruction of Justice

Other factors the judge weighs to get the offense level include how the victim was harmed because of the defendant’s and whether the defendant obstructed justice. The judge may also consider the defendant’s behavior.

Examples of the points that can be added in these adjustment areas are as follows:

  • Victim-related:
    • The victim was a current or former government official: 3 points are added
    • The defendant restrained the victim: 2 points are added
  • Obstruction of justice:
    • The defendant willfully tried to impede the investigation, prosecution, or sentencing of the crime: 2 points are added
    • The defendant recklessly could have caused harm to others while fleeing law enforcement officials during the course of the crime: 2 points are added
  • The defendant’s behavior:
    • The defendant organized a crime involving 5 or more people: 4 points are added
    • The defendant was the manager of a crime involving 5 or more people: 3 points are added
    • The defendant was a minimal participant in the crime: 4 points are added
    • The defendant had a minor role in the crime: 2 points are added
    • The defendant accepted responsibility: 2 points are removed

The Defendant’s Criminal History

A federal judge will also consider a defendant’s criminal history when sentencing. The number of convictions and types of crimes the defendant was convicted of will, in part, determine their criminal history category.

Under the federal sentencing guidelines, there are six criminal history categories. Category I is the least serious and reserved for defendants with little to no convictions in their past. Category VI is the most severe and houses defendants with lengthy criminal histories.

A defendant is assigned a category based on their number of criminal history points.

The points are assessed as follows:

  • 3 points for previous convictions resulting in imprisonment for more than 1 year and 1 month
  • 2 points for previous convictions resulting in imprisonment for at least 60 days
  • 1 point for any other sentence
  • 2 points if the previous conviction arose from an offense occurring while the defendant was under probation, parole, supervised release, work release, imprisonment, or escape status
  • 1 point for prior convictions for crimes of violence not covered by the previous sections

Points are added for each prior conviction. For instance, if a person was imprisoned for 2 years for one previous offense and committed a separate offense while on probation, they accumulate 5 points.

The criminal history categories are assigned according to the total points. For instance:

  • 0 to 1 points is Category I
  • 2 to 3 points is Category II
  • 4 to 6 points is Category III
  • 7 to 9 points is Category IV
  • 10 to 12 points is Category V
  • 13 or more points is Category VI

Other Factors Affecting the Offense Level and Criminal History Category

A few factors the judge must consider can increase or decrease both the offense level and criminal history category.

These include:

  • Career offender status: A defendant is considered a career offender if they were presently convicted of a felony-level violent or drug crime and have 2 or more felony convictions for a felony-level violent or drug crime. Depending on the maximum prison term indicated in the statute for the present crime, the offense level can increase if the defendant is a career offender. Additionally, the defendant will automatically be placed in criminal history category VI.
  • Criminal livelihood: This term refers to defendants who engaged in multiple criminal acts over a period of time and made a living off the conduct. In this situation, the offense level must be at least 13. However, if the defendant accepted responsibility for the crime, the offense level must be at least 11. The criminal livelihood designation does not affect the criminal history category.
  • Armed career criminal status: An armed career criminal is a person who was prohibited from having a gun yet possessed one. Additionally, they were previously convicted at least 3 times of a violent felony or controlled substance crime. The offense level for these defendants is:
    • The greater of the value for the offense level after considering relevant factors or the offense level if the defendant is a career offender,
    • 34 if the defendant possessed or used a firearm to commit a violent or drug crime, or
    • 33 in all other situations.

The criminal history category will also be affected as follows:

    • The greater of the criminal history category after considering all relevant factors or the category level if the defendant is designated a career offender,
    • VI if the defendant used or possessed a gun during the commission of a violent or drug crime, or
    • IV in all other situations.

Recapping the Factors a Federal Judge Will Consider

We’ve covered a lot of information in this blog. Thus, we feel it is important to provide a summary of the factors considered when sentencing for a federal crime.

Below is a summary of the factors:

  • Base level of offense: The value assigned to the offense without considering other factors.
  • Special characteristics: The unique features of the crime that add or subtract points to or from the base level.
  • Adjustments: These include the impact of the crime on the victim, obstruction of justice, the defendant’s behavior, and the defendant’s acceptance of responsibility.
  • Criminal history: This consists of the defendant's prior convictions and the crimes they were for.
  • Criminal statuses: These include career offender, criminal livelihood, and armed career criminal designations.

After the judge considers all relevant factors in each category, they will have an offense level value and a criminal history category. They reference these numbers with those on the sentencing table to find the recommended range of imprisonment.

If you have been charged with a federal crime in Iowa City, schedule a consultation with Keegan, Tindal & Jaeger by contacting us at (319) 499-5524.