Thanks again for the nice thoughts about my Dad – but even he would want me back in the saddle and getting ready for trial. Before I get deep into trial mode (two weeks and counting), I wanted to take a minute and answer a question about federal criminal sentencing. A prospective federal client asked me about the use of the federal sentencing guidelines.  How might a sentence differ under the guidelines from a state proceeding?

The guidelines used in federal court work off a grid system.  Each offense gets a numerical score that is reflective of the perceived severity of the crime.  You can expect that an illegal re-entry by an alien has a lower score than an assault on a federal agent.  The second component of the grid has to do with calculating the criminal history of the defendant.  A person with more crimes in his or her past will be treated more harshly under the guidelines than a first time offender.  The combination of the two factors – severity of the offense and the criminal history of the defendant – result in a "guidelines sentencing range." The Court is not bound by that range and it may increase or decrease the punishment based on the circumstances of the crime and the offender. That ability to increase or decrease punishment makes the system more like the state system than during the years that the guidelines range was followed without consideration of other factors.

So the difference now – after the Supreme Court ruled that the guidelines range is not mandatory – is not, perhaps, as great as it was ten years ago. In Idaho state courts there is no sentencing grid to start the calculation, rather the courts focus on protecting society, the need for rehabilitation, deterrence of others from criminal conduct and society’s need for retribution or punishment. 

If you are charged in federal court, sit down with a lawyer who is familiar with federal criminal practice and go over the guidelines calculations as you consider your future. The sentencing guidelines make it possible to know where the court will start its sentencing consideration, but your past and the nature of the crime will ultimately decide what sentence is imposed.