Federal Sentencing and the 3553(a) Factors

People familiar with the sentencing process in North Carolina state court are often surprised at how drastically different that same process is within the federal system. It’s easy to get to caught up in the intimidating complexities of the United States Sentencing Guidelines, which are so different than North Carolina’s Structured Sentencing. Click the following to read more about North Carolina Structured Sentencing and the United States Sentencing Guidelines.

The main thing to keep in mind is this: The Sentencing Guidelines are just that—they are a guide. They are advisory. The court can use a person’s guideline range as a factor in determining what particular sentence to create for that individual— but it is not the only factor. The court is not duty-bound to hand down a sentence within your guideline range. The reasons for this are referred to as the “3553(a)” factors. To find out more about these factors and the role they play in sentencing, keep reading.

It is true that at sentencing, the prosecutor and defense attorney will argue in front of the judge what each thinks the defendant’s guideline range should be. But here’s the thing: Even if the judge rules that a certain enhancement should apply despite your attorney’s arguments to the contrary, that doesn’t mean the judge has to give you whatever guideline sentence applies based on that enhancement. This all comes back to the fact that the Guidelines are just a guide. Your lawyer can still ask for a below-guideline sentence based on what are called the “3553(a)” factors.

The term comes from subsection (a) of the statute 18 § U.S.C. 3553. Unlike the Guidelines, federal statutes, or laws, are mandatory. The most common example of this is when a statute requires a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment upon conviction. (There are certain ways in which to receive a sentence below that mandatory minimum, but that’s a topic for another post). 18 § U.S.C. 3553(a) states that the court shall, as in must, consider certain factors in determining the specific sentence to impose so that the sentence is enough, but not more than necessary, to meet the objectives of sentencing (according to the statute, these are deterrence, protection of the public, rehabilitation and punishment, and to promote respect for the law while reflecting the seriousness of the offense).

A person’s guideline range is only one of the factors that a court must take into consideration. Other factors include the following:

  • The circumstances and nature of the particular offense. E.g., Is it a crime of violence? Are there mitigating circumstances surrounding the offense? Was the offense limited in scope, or did it affect many people?
  • The specific defendant’s personal characteristics and history. This factor can be a critical one. For example, in a complex white-collar conspiracy case, does the defendant have a sixth-grade education and learning disabilities that would have affected his ability to understand the full scope of what he was doing (but would not been severe enough to warrant an insanity or diminished capacity defense at trial)? Did the defendant have a positive employment record and work hard to provide for his family and care for his children prior to his arrest? Was the person introduced to drugs at a very young age due to his or her home life, and did that exposure have an impact on what led to the offense?
  • The necessity of avoiding unwarranted differences amongst sentences for defendants convicted of similar conduct who have similar criminal records. In other words, if Defendant A is a Criminal History Category II and received a below-guideline sentence of 10 months for evading $1 million in taxes, the sentencing judge for Defendant B, who is also a History Category II and being sentenced evading $1 million in taxes, must take Defendant A’s sentence into consideration when sentencing Defendant B.
  • The societal need for the sentence imposed. This takes into account the objectives of sentencing mentioned earlier—deterrence, respect for the law, punishment, rehabilitation etc.
  • The kinds of sentences available. Is the person eligible for a probationary sentence instead of a sentence of incarceration? Are there other options appropriate in the case, such as home confinement or electronic monitoring?
  • The importance of providing restitutions to any victims, if applicable. For example, in a bank fraud case, restitution to the banks defrauded is often part of a person’s sentence.
  • Any relevant policy statement released by the Sentencing Commission (who writes the Sentencing Guidelines) that is in effect on the date of sentencing (except in cases of re-sentencing, which are more complicated). The Sentencing Commission will periodically release official policy statements that make recommendations to the courts on how to handle certain issues. For example, the Commission has released policy statements addressing if certain changes in the guidelines throughout the years should be considered retroactive.

It is crucial to have a lawyer experienced in federal criminal defense if you or a loved one is facing federal charges. If it gets to the point of a conviction (whether by trial or plea), your attorney must understand the role each of these 3553(a) factors and make sure the judge is presented with all relevant information by someone who is passionately fighting for your interests. Contact our criminal defense law firm today to schedule your free case evaluation. Now taking cases throughout North Carolina with offices in Uptown Charlotte, Mooresville and Monroe.