Another consideration in federal practice is the use of the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Often referred to as the “USSG” the Guidelines provide a suggested range of imprisonment. In the federal system all terms of imprisonment are discussed in month quantities. There is no use of years in sentencing an individual and the sentence is not discussed or ordered in that manner. The Guidelines are not mandatory, only advisory. This means that the Court may use them and refer to them at the time of sentencing, but are not bound to follow them strictly. The only mandatory portion of a federal sentence is that which arises out of a statutory minimum or maximum from the United States Code.
The range of imprisonment is based upon the criminal history of the defendant and the type of crime committed. Each crime is prescribed a “Base Level Offense” which is represented by a numerical value. The worse the crime is the higher the number associated with the crime, the less severe the crime the lower the number. There are other aggravating and mitigating factors within a Guideline calculation. For example, in a drug case the more drug quantity determined by the Court the higher the Base Level Offense. Or in a case about possessing firearms as a felon or prohibited person, a defendant may have a reduction if all weapons are possessed for a “lawful sporting purpose”. The Guidelines are unique to federal criminal court and knowledge of the intricate and often complex scoring or non-scoring of these enhancements or reductions is a crucial part of representing an individual in federal court. Once the Total Offense Level is determined the Court must also determine the defendant’s criminal history.
Every defendant will provided a Criminal History calculation, grouped by Criminal History points, ranging from a Criminal History Category I-VI. As the severity of the past crime or crimes and the length of each respective sentence increases a higher criminal history calculation will occur. Felony crimes “count” towards a defendant’s criminal history as long as they have been committed in the last 15 years. As one can imagine there are a number of different arguments, from both the prosecution and the defense as to when the past felony conviction is ‘too old” to count towards criminal history. Also remember that any crime punishable by over one year is a felony in federal criminal court, therefore many aggravated misdemeanor offenses in Iowa is considered a felony for federal purposes. Crimes of the misdemeanor variety are counted as long as they have occurred within the last ten years prior to the offense of conviction in federal court.
At the conclusion of sentencing the Court will have considered the Total Offense Level, the Criminal History calculation and a number of other factors contained within 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) in reaching a final judgment. The 3553(a) factors relate to a number of different areas including; the nature and circumstances of the offense, the need to provide just punishment, the need for rehabilitation and a whole host of other considerations that each federal judge considers when imposing a sentence.
Whatever the judgment of the Court, it is important to remember that there is no parole in federal court and the good time credit in the federal system is currently only a mere 15%. There continues to be discussions as to an increase in the good time credit, but as of now the most provided is 15%. That is approximately 54 days for every full year of incarceration and is pro-rated if less than a year remains to be served.