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Federal Crimes and Sentencing: What You Should Know

Hands of the prisoner on a steel lattice close upThe topic of “mandatory minimums” – or mandatory minimum criminal sentences – has gotten a lot of attention in the news lately. President Obama even made history in Oklahoma last year by becoming the first sitting president to visit a prison when he came to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno to talk about his goal of reducing the impact of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. The focus on mandatory minimums highlights one of the lesser-discussed but most important issues in federal criminal law: sentencing.

What are Mandatory Minimums?

Mandatory minimums can refer to any criminal law or rule that imposes a mandatory minimum prison sentence for a given crime. For example, a state might have a law saying that the crime of rape is punishable by no less than 5 years in prison, and so a judge might not be permitted to impose less than a 5-year sentence on a defendant who is found guilty of the crime.

At the federal level, many federal crime carry mandatory minimum sentences which impose very strict sentences on offenders. Nowhere is this more true than with drug offenses, where, based on anti-drug legislation passed in the 1980’s, defendants can face double-digit sentences for a single offense.

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines

In response to a perception that some judges were being too lenient in handing out sentences in federal criminal cases, in 1984 Congress passed into a law requiring that the judges follow the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in handing down sentences. These guidelines presented a strict framework that judges had to follow, making it much more difficult for them to hand down sentences that were lower than recommended. The guidelines resulted in giving the judge a specific range of sentences that a defendant should be sentenced to, sometimes far greater than the mandatory minimum for the particular crime.

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines said that judges could depart downward (hand down a shorter sentence than otherwise required) or depart upward (hand down a longer sentence) but only based on certain sets of facts and criteria:

  • The conduct associated with the crime (e.g. whether a gun was involved)
  • The defendant’s criminal history

The US Supreme Court in 2005 held that it was not mandatory that judges follow the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, but the court did say judges could consult the guidelines in reaching a sentence, and in practice judges routinely do continue to base sentences on the factors included in the guidelines.

The Importance of the Sentencing Phase in a Criminal Trial

Many criminal defendants mistakenly think of their criminal trial as one essential issue: whether they will be found guilty or not guilty (along with the question of whether they should plead guilty or not guilty). While determination of guilt is supremely important, the importance of the sentencing phase cannot be underestimated either.

With the right legal strategy, an experienced criminal attorney can successfully argue for a far-reduced criminal sentence based on the federal sentencing guidelines and other factors related to the sentencing phase. Thus, even if a criminal defendant plans to plead guilty to an offense, the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney can be invaluable in reaching a more favorable outcome in the sentencing phase.

For questions about mandatory minimums, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, or any other issues related to criminal law, contact Oklahoma City criminal defense attorney J. Patrick Quillian today.

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