Federal Sentencing Process

What Should I Expect If I Plead Guilty To Or Am Convicted Of A Federal Offense?

A majority of federal criminal cases are disposed of by negotiated plea bargains; very few federal criminal cases actually go to trial. The effect of a guilty plea is the same as a conviction at trial; however, you may be able exercise some control the outcome of your sentence if you are able to reach a favorable plea agreement with the prosecutor.

Estimating A Federal Criminal Sentence

A free online tool is (http://www.tnwp.uscourts.gov/forms/prob001.pdf) to help you calculate a potential federal sentence based on the offense you have been charged with, whether you have accepted responsibility for the act and your prior criminal history. The site is based on the 2011 guidelines and should only be considered a ballpark estimate. We have not reviewed its accuracy for every combination of the above factors.

A defense lawyer familiar with the application of the federal sentencing guidelines should be able to give you a more accurate range of what penalties are associated with the criminal charges you face.

The Pre-Sentencing Report

If you plead guilty to a federal offense, you will be scheduled a change-of-plea hearing. At this hearing, the judge will confirm that you intended to plead guilty and that you know and understand the effects and repercussions of your plea.

The U.S. probation officer assigned to your case will then be instructed to prepare a Pre-Sentence Information Report (PSIR). You will be interviewed by the probation officer, who will ask about your background, including your criminal history, work history, military history if any, financial status and other information. A sample worksheet including the information collected by the probation officer is available here. You have the right to have your defense attorney present at this interview.

The probation officer will include a sentencing range in the PSIR based on the federal sentencing guidelines and any applicable mandatory minimum penalties. The PSIR will also include a range for any applicable fines and supervised release. This report should be disclosed to you and your federal defense lawyer just over a month after you change-of-plea hearing.

It is important to review every detail in the PSIR. You have the opportunity to object to any mischaracterizations contained in the report as well as to any factually inaccurate information. The prosecutor also has the opportunity to object to the findings in the pre-sentence report.

Your Sentencing Memorandum

You can present your own sentencing recommendations to the court through a sentencing memorandum. In the memorandum, you should include:

  • Objections to any information contained in the PSIR
  • Your own calculation of the appropriate sentencing range for your offense based on the federal sentencing guidelines
  • Any reasons for a downward departure from the federal sentencing guidelines
  • Your own sentencing recommendation, along with the reasons supporting your recommendation, based on the range you have suggested

You may also include letters in support of your request for a more lenient sentence than what was suggested in the PSIR from friends, family, members of your community and others as appropriate.

The Sentencing Hearing

Increasingly, crime victims and their family and friends are opting to speak at sentencing hearings or to submit victim impact statements to the court. Typically these statements are intended to persuade the judge to "throw the book at you" because of how your crime has impacted their lives. In some instances, however, victim impact statements may request leniency on your behalf.

You also have the opportunity to speak at your own sentencing hearing. This may be an opportunity to show remorse for your actions, to accept responsibility for your crimes and to request leniency from the judge. Speaking at a sentencing hearing can be dangerous, however, and should be discussed with your defense attorney prior to your hearing date.

The prosecutor and your defense lawyer will also have the opportunity to speak at your sentencing hearing.

Ultimately it is the judge who must decide what punishment you will receive for your offenses. In some cases, that may take a matter of minutes. In others, a careful review of the PSIR, the sentencing memorandum submitted by your attorney and the prosecutor and the information presented at your sentencing hearing may take longer.

If You Are Sentenced To Prison

If you are in custody at the time of your sentencing hearing, you will typically continue to remain in custody if you are sentenced to prison. If you were not in custody, in some circumstances you will be allowed to self-surrender to the court at a later date. You will receive a letter, through your defense lawyer, from the U.S. Marshals directing you where and when you must surrender to serve your sentence.

U.S. vs. J.R.
Charge: Mail Fraud (9 Counts), Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud
Facing: Three years in prison
Result: One year, One day

Our client was convicted of nine counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. The government alleged that our client fraudulently obtained more than $115,000 from her former employer. At the sentencing hearing, the Judge granted our motion for a downward departure, sentencing our client to one year and one day. The government had asked the judge to sentence our client to several years.