Federal Sentencing Guidelines - The 43 Offense Categories

April 30, 2010

According to the U.S. Federal Sentencing Guidelines, federal crimes can be classified in terms of 43 offense categories. The offense level is matched up with the Criminal History Category (there are six different history categories) to determine sentencing. To find a recommended prison sentence, a judge simply cross-references the offense level with the Criminal History. For instance, an offender who commits a level 16 offense and who has a Criminal History of IV, according to the table, should get 33 to 41 months behind bars, all things being equal.

Of course, sentencing is much more complicated than that. Sentences can be adjusted based on numerous factors, such as:

• Whether a vulnerable victim was harmed during the commission of the crime.
• Whether the defendant played a major or minor role. Ringleaders can face elevated offense levels; minor contributors can get lower offense levels.
• Whether the defendant cooperated with prosecutors or obstructed justice. Obstructing can get your offense level bumped up; cooperating can knock it down.
• Whether the offender committed other crimes concurrent with the offense alleged.
• Whether the defendant accepts some responsibility.

The US Federal Sentencing Guidelines have undergone multiple reformations since they were first cast in 1984. Congress created the guidelines to prevent different judges from imposing widely different sentences for similar crimes. In the mid 2000s, two cases challenged the constitutionality of the guidelines. These two cases - Blakely v. Washington and United States v. Booker - modified how judges can use the guidelines to impose sentences.

How Offense Categorization Works

1. The judge examines the base offense level for a particular charge.

For instance, first degree murder has a base offense level 43 - the highest you can get. Kidnapping and unlawful restraint has a base offense level of 32. Trespass has a base offense level of 4. And so forth.

2. The judge considers whether to adjust the base level.

For instance, if, in the commission of a robbery, an offender harmed a vulnerable victim, his offense level may be bumped up. The guidelines are incredibly complicated regarding what merits changes in offense levels. Even experienced federal criminal defense attorneys must stay on top of their game to provide best defenses for their clients.

3. The Criminal History Category is also accounted for.

4. The sentencing table recommends a prison sentence and zone category.
Zones have to do with probation. If your offense falls into Zone A, for instance, you can get straight probation. If your offense falls into Zone C, on the other hand, you may be eligible for probation, but you at minimum have to serve half of your sentence in prison.

5. The judge uses discretion to depart from the guidelines - upwards or downwards.

Judges cannot depart arbitrarily - they must justify their decisions. Thanks to Blakely and Booker, they must rely only on the defendant's admissions and the jury's verdicts to calculate recommended sentences. For instance, if the judge believes an offender obstructed justice but the jury did not find that the defendant obstructed justice - the judge cannot use this charge to ratchet up the offense level (and thus impose longer sentences).

As you can see, even from this pared down discussion, the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines and 43 offense categories can get extremely complicated. To prepare your best defense, it behooves you to get in touch with a veteran and battle-proven federal criminal defense lawyer.