In federal court, criminal sentences are sometimes regulated by harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws and not just the advisory sentencing guidelines. Despite the somewhat confusing nature of federal sentencing, a minimum mandatory sentence may not always apply.
An experienced federal criminal defense attorney can help you determine what rules and guidelines may apply in your case and help you find the best way to navigate that process to seek the best outcome for your situation.
What are mandatory minimum sentences?
Federal “mandatory sentences” require automatic minimum sentences for certain and specific offenses. Mandatory minimums most often apply to drug crimes, but they can also apply to other offenses involving firearms, identity theft and pornography.
As the name implies, mandatory minimum sentences are mandatory — they can only be waived in very limited situations, such as when:
- The government files a pre-sentence motion to reduce sentence pursuant to the Sentencing Guidelines;
- The government files a post-sentence motion under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35; or
- A so-called “safety valve” exception applies.
Mandatory minimums — which are set by Congress, not judges — are a legislative attempt to standardize the punishments but they fail to consider an accused’s background, character and other factors that a judge could consider to reduce the sentence.
What are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?
The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are a product of the United States Sentencing Commission and guide judges to impose a sentence based on the specific facts of a case. Although the Sentencing Guidelines were originally mandatory, they have been advisory in nature since 2005. In calculating a sentence, a judge can go above or below a defendant’s guideline sentence based on the facts and circumstances surrounding the case and the individual subject to sentencing.
At a sentencing hearing, a federal court must first compute the advisory guidelines based on the Sentencing Guidelines and then apply the 18 USC 2553 factors to adjust the final sentence up or down as the court sees appropriate. That adjustment, departure or variance, if any, is based on different considerations including the individual’s character, upbringing, medical condition, type of crime and other unlimited factors. The goal of this process is to tailor the sentence to the person appearing before the court.
What does this mean for your case?
When it comes to criminal sentencing, federal judges can deviate from the Sentencing Guidelines at their discretion, but they cannot deviate from mandatory minimums without consent of the government or the existence of a “safety valve” exception. In the end, mandatory minimums will typically supersede a lower guidelines sentence. Every case is unique, however, and the outcome often depends on several variables.
An experienced criminal defense attorney can often find and secure potential adjustments and departures from the sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums. If you’ve been arrested and charged with a federal crime, contact a local federal criminal defense attorney to better understand your situation and options.