The Federal Sentencing Process

If you are facing federal criminal charges and elect to plead guilty rather than face trial, you will need the assistance of a seasoned federal sentencing attorney to navigate the sentencing process. This page provides an overview of the steps in that process.  First, however, is a short description of what federal sentencing is based on and what can be considered by the judge.

How are Federal Sentences Determined?

In determining what sentence to impose in a given case, the federal court will rely on certain factors that are provided in 18 U.S.C. § 3553.  These “sentencing factors” include the following:

  • The nature and circumstances of the offense
  • The history and characteristics of the defendant
  • The need for the sentence imposed to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, to provide just punishment for the offense, to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct, to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant; and to provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care, or other correctional treatment in the most effective manner
  • The kinds of sentences available
  • The need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct
  • The need to provide restitution to any victims of the offense.

It should be apparent from this list that the sentencing judge can consider virtually anything about the crime and the individual being sentenced, as well as comparable cases, in determining what punishment is appropriate in a given case.  In addition to these factors, the recommended federal sentencing guidelines range, although not mandatory, is also an important factor that judges consider to decide the appropriate sentence.  To achieve the best possible outcome at sentencing, you should work with a skilled federal sentencing lawyer.

Components of a Federal Sentencing

The plea hearing. If you decide to plead guilty to a federal criminal charge (with or without a plea agreement with the government) a federal district judge must first accept your guilty plea. Before doing so, the district judge will conduct an (often lengthy) plea hearing. At this hearing, the judge will question you to ensure that your guilty plea is knowing and voluntary. If the judge accepts your plea, the case will be set for a sentencing hearing and the judge will order a presentence report.  The attorney working with you should thoroughly prepare you for the plea hearing.  This will include discussing with you the questions that the judge will likely ask and the appropriate answers to those questions.

The presentence report. The presentence report (PSR) is a document prepared by the probation office.  It is designed to provide the district judge with the information necessary to decide the correct sentence in your case. The PSR is often quite lengthy and includes information on the facts of the case and your biographical information. It will also include the probation officer’s calculation of your sentencing guidelines. To prepare this report, the probation officer will want to meet with you for an interview, which should be done in the presence of your attorney. Before the PSR is finalized, you will be provided with a draft to review with your attorney.

Objecting to the PSR. Because the PSR is such an important document in the sentencing process, you will want to review it in detail with your federal sentencing attorney. After reviewing the PSR, you may conclude that it contains incomplete or inaccurate information about the case or your personal history. Your attorney lawyer, having carefully reviewed the PSR, may also conclude that the probation officer’s calculation of the sentencing guidelines is too high. If any of these is true, your attorney should file objections to the PSR, which will be decided by the judge at your sentencing hearing.

Sentencing memoranda. In most federal cases, both federal prosecutors and the defense will submit sentencing memoranda to the court arguing in favor of their requested sentence. These documents are often quite lengthy and may include legal arguments as to the sentencing guidelines, expert reports, character letters or other mitigating evidence. If there are any disputes with the PSR, the sentencing memoranda will address those as well.  Because sentencing hearings are not typically lengthy, the sentencing memorandum submitted on your behalf is arguably the single most important document in the process.  A skilled federal sentencing attorney will know what information about the offense and the individual being sentenced should be included for the judge to consider.  The sentencing memorandum is also where a skilled federal sentencing attorney will fight back against any claims by prosecutors that are wrong.

The sentencing hearing. Once the PSR and sentencing memoranda have been submitted, the case will go before the judge for a sentencing hearing. As with all critical stages of federal criminal proceedings, you will have the right to be represented by your attorney at the sentencing hearing.  In court, the judge will hear evidence if necessary and arguments from both sides as to what the proper sentence should be. Depending on the complexity of the issues involved, the sentencing hearing can take anywhere from 15 minutes to several days.

Sentencing appeals. If either party is not satisfied with the sentencing decision, either side may appeal the sentence (assuming you have not waived your right to appeal your sentence as part of a plea agreement). On appeal, you may argue to the Circuit Court of Appeals that the judge made a legal error in calculating your sentence or that your sentence is unreasonably long. If the court agrees with your arguments, the case may be remanded for resentencing.

Experienced Federal Sentencing Attorneys

The attorneys at Burnham & Gorokhov, PLLC have achieved many cases of favorable sentencing outcomes for clients.  If you have been convicted of a crime in federal and are in need of a federal sentencing attorney, please do not hesitate to contact us to schedule a free phone consultation.