If you are facing criminal charges, you may have a tremendous amount of anxiety about potential punishment. After all, if a federal judge sentences you to prison time, you lose your freedom and experience a variety of other consequences. You are also apt to come across a concept that may be unfamiliar to you: federal sentencing guidelines.

In 1984, Congress noticed a wide discrepancy in criminal sentences. That is, some federal judges took a harsh approach, while others were more lenient in punishing the same criminal conduct. With the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act, Congress attempted to bring consistency and predictability to the sentencing process.

Finding the guidelines 

The U.S. Sentencing Commission publishes the “Guidelines Manual” that lists sentencing parameters for virtually all federal crimes. The manual operates on a point-based system. That is, each criminal offense has a certain number of points. An offender also accumulates points based on his or her background. If a situation only has one point, the individual should spend under six months in custody. Accumulating 43 points, though, results in a life sentence.

Using the guidelines 

The “Guidelines Manual” lists sentencing ranges for most federal crimes. These ranges are not mandatory, though, despite Congress’s intentions. This gives district court judges quite a bit of flexibility in imposing sentences, provided they do not abuse their discretion. Even better for criminal defendants, if a judge chooses to enhance a sentence, there must be evidentiary proof to back up the enhancement.

Reversing a sentence 

While judges enjoy great latitude in handing down sentences, an appeals court may reverse a sentence based on abuse of discretion. This happened recently in a terrorism case. In that case, the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals determined that a 17-year sentence was too lenient. The sentencing guidelines for the crime recommended an 85-year prison term.

For a variety of reasons, criminal charges can be stressful for anyone. If you are wondering how long you may have to spend in federal custody, understanding sentencing guidelines may put your mind at ease.

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