Federal Sentencing Guidelines 2017-05-24T22:26:54+00:00

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines and their application to federal criminal cases maybe the single biggest difference between federal criminal law and criminal cases handled in Illinois criminal courts. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines affected every aspect of federal criminal practice. Every criminal attorney practicing federal criminal law must have a thorough understanding of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines and their application and effect on your case. Anything less may result in disaster to your case and your chances of avoiding a lengthy federal sentence.

When Were the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Created?

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were created as a result of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. Part of this massive Act was The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which created the United States Sentencing Commission. The Sentencing Commission was formed to create the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Once created, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines would applied to every federal district courts throughout the country. On November 1, 1987 the Federal Sentencing Guidelines took effect. However, since their creation the Federal Sentencing Guidelines have been modified and tweaked. For example, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines have been changed to punish powder cocaine and crack-cocaine equally and most recently the Drug Quantity Table was modified to lessen the sentence of non-violent drug offenders.

What Was the Effect of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines changed the entire federal criminal system not just federal sentencing. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines effected everything from charging decisions through plea bargaining, trial, administration of sentences, and even supervision of post-conviction release after a sentence is served. One of the main consequences of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines was to severely curtail the discretion of sentencing judges. Limiting the discretion of judges in their sentencing decisions was the Commission’s attempt to reduce sentencing disparities between similarly situated people. Whether the stated goal was accomplished is up for debate.

Despite the mandatory nature of the language used by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are only advisory. As a result,  federal sentencing court may impose any sentence that it determines to be “reasonable.” However, despite this federal courts have overwhelmingly defaulted to the sentencing range provided by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

What Was the Impact on Sentencing After the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines eliminated the parole system and replaced it with a “real-time” sentencing system. Under the new system, a federal defendant must serve the entirety of the imposed sentence. The only credit available to reduce a federal sentence is good time credits, which can be a maximum of 54 days a year. However, good time credit under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines applies only to federal sentences over one-year.

A sentence of probation is also greatly limited by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. A federal district court may impose probation only if the sentencing range provided by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines is less than 15 months. Additionally, a federal sentencing court must impose some conditions of confinement, which may include incarceration, intermittent incarceration (including work release), community placement, or home detention if the high-end of the sentencing range is greater than 6 months.


The Federal Sentencing Guidelines greatly changed how federal criminal law is practiced. Sentencing in federal cases is very complicated and requires extensive experience to navigate through. In fact, knowing even what sentencing range applies to a person can be a difficult process. If you have any questions or are facing a federal indictment, please contact us so we can discuss your situation.