The Duffy Law Criminal Defense Blog

A Brief Look at the Federal Sentencing Process

If you plead guilty to a federal criminal offense, you will enter your plea at a hearing in front of the judge overseeing your case. The judge will ask you questions to determine whether your guilty plea is voluntary and knowingly entered, and will generally accept your plea. Your case then moves on to the next phase before it can be resolved: sentencing.

The federal sentencing process can be quite different from sentencing in a state-level criminal case. There are additional requirements and procedures to follow, so it’s critical that you have an attorney on your side who can advocate for your rights throughout the sentencing process.

How Does a Judge Decide Your Sentence?

Both federal law and federal criminal procedure dictate what a judge must consider in imposing a fair and just sentence. First, the court should examine any of the relevant sentencing factors set out in federal law,1 which include the following:

  • The nature and circumstances of the criminal offense
  • The character and history of the defendant
  • The need for the sentence to serve as punishment, to reflect the severity of the crime, and to encourage respect for the law
  • The need to deter from future criminal conduct
  • The need for public protections from future acts of the defendant
  • The need of the defendant for medical care, education, training, or other effective correctional treatment
  • What sentences are available
  • The need for restitution to any victims
  • Avoidance of sentencing disparities between the defendant and others in similar circumstances with similar convictions.

In addition to considering many factors regarding the offense, the defendant, and comparable cases, the judge must consider the Federal Sentencing Guidelines2 for the offense in question. These guidelines are advisory and do not restrict the judge to a particular sentence for a particular offense. However, the guidelines factor in the severity of the crime (the “offense level”) with your prior criminal history and suggest a range for a just sentence. After considering the guidelines range for the particular circumstances of your case, the judge can then decide on a sentence within that range or above or below that range based on all additional information at the judge’s disposal.

Finally, the court will receive several filings for consideration, which can include:

Presentence report (PSR) – The PSR is not prepared by an attorney in the case, but instead by the federal probation office. This report will include various facts about you and your case for the judge to consider. The probation officer will interview you to gather information to include in the report, and you always want an attorney present during such interviews. Your attorney will have a chance to review the PSR and object to any inaccuracies, omissions, or falsehoods that have been included.

Sentencing memorandum from the prosecutor – The prosecutor can submit certain information about you and legal arguments, generally in support of a stricter sentence.

Sentencing memorandum from the defense – Your attorney can submit her own arguments to mitigate the sentence, including character references, expert analysis of your behavior or mental state, or to challenge any wrongful claims made by the prosecutor.

Once she has reviewed everything, a judge will announce your sentence at a sentencing hearing. Judges have discretion when determining federal sentences other than going below a mandatory minimum sentence, so having an attorney who knows how to protect your rights and advocate for you during sentencing can significantly improve the outcome of a sentencing hearing.

If you are facing any type of federal criminal charges, it is imperative to seek assistance from a law firm that has extensive experience dealing with the federal criminal justice system. The attorneys at Duffy Law have worked as a federal prosecutor and a federal defender, so you can trust that we will skillfully guide you through every step of the often-complex federal criminal process. We not only work to defend against your charges; we will also provide aggressive sentencing advocacy when needed. Please call our office for help today.



Justin T. Smith

Justin T. Smith

Attorney At Duffy Law

Attorney Justin T. Smith zealously defends individuals facing both state and federal criminal charges from their initial contact with law enforcement all the way through to jury trial if necessary. Prior to becoming an attorney, Justin was a criminal defense investigator with the Federal Defenders Office of Eastern Washington and Idaho, where he learned the intricacies of witness interviews, background investigations, forensics, and strategic and comprehensive trial preparation. Since 2003, he has passionately defended the full range of criminal cases from simple larcenies and domestic assaults to major drug conspiracies and murder cases. Justin can be reached at (203) 946-2000.
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