What are the United States federal sentencing guidelines?

Sentencing guidelines are rules for deciding the appropriate sentence for anyone who has been convicted of a crime in federal court, depending on the nature of the crime and the offender’s criminal background. In simple terms, it is the collection of rules and standards that a trial court judge uses to determine the appropriate punishment for a criminal who has been found guilty. The United States Sentencing Commission establishes sentencing guidelines. The sentencing guidelines aid judges during the difficult decision-making process. The main goal of sentencing guidelines is to ensure that sentences are consistent in federal courts across the United States.

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines implemented in 1987 are non-binding laws that provide a standard sentencing framework for offenders convicted in the United States federal court system. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Guidelines are not mandatory, meaning federal judges must consider them but are not bound to follow them. Nevertheless, most judges generally sentence within the Guidelines.

When a judge determines to depart from the Guidelines based on his or her discretion, the judge must state the reasoning for the departure. When a Court of Appeals considers a sentence imposed in accordance with the Guidelines , it will assume the sentence is fair absent strong evidence otherwise.

Basic guidelines:

The Guidelines primarily consider two factors when determining sentences:

  • the conduct that is linked to the offense
  • the criminal history of of the defendant 

Each of these factors results in numbers that are used on an X and Y axis in the sentencing table, that yields a sentencing range. The table is divided into zones.


A, B, C, and D are the 4 sentencing zones. Zone A sentence ranges from 0–6 months. Sentences in Zone B are higher than those in Zone A, but with a maximum sentence of no more than 15 months. Zone C has higher sentence ranges than Zone B, with a maximum punishment of 18 months or less. Zone D is made up of sentencing ranges that are higher than Zone C.

A prisoner in Zone A is eligible for Federal Probation and does not have to serve any time in jail. Suppose the relevant guideline range is in Zone B of the Sentencing Table, and the court imposes a condition requiring intermittent confinement, community confinement, or home detention. In that case, probation is also permitted, but at least one month of the sentence must be served in jail. Zone C prisoners are eligible for a split sentence. On the other hand, Zone C defendants must complete at least half of their sentence in prison.

The United States of America (US) recommended in 2010 the extension of Zones B and C. This was done in appreciation of the fact that many prisoners are sentenced to 12 months and one day to achieve the benefit of good time under US federal law.


Departures are permitted in situations when an individual assists authorities in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed a crime. In some of these cases, the Sentencing Reform Act also reduces the applicable statutory mandatory minimum. 

Death or Injury:

If a victim dies or suffers serious physical injury due to the crime, the court has the authority to extend the penalty beyond the prescribed guideline range. The severity of the injury can usually determine the size of the increase. A significant departure can be necessary when the victim experiences a severe, permanent disability as a result of a deliberately inflicted injury. A less significant departure would be suggested if the accident is less severe or if the defendant did not intentionally cause the damage.

Abduction or unlawful confinement:

The court might increase the sentence beyond the permitted guideline range if an individual was abducted, taken hostage, or unlawfully restrained to facilitate the commission of the offense or the escape from the scene of the crime.

Property damage or loss: 

If the violation caused property damage or loss that was not factored into the guidelines, the court might impose a higher sentence than the permitted guideline range. The extent of the increase can normally be determined by the degree to which the harm was intended or intentionally risked and the degree to which the property harm is more serious than any harm caused by the conduct relevant to the conviction crime.

Have you found yourself in need of a criminal defense attorney who’s well-versed in understanding how to navigate the courts and come to the most favorable outcome for you? Get in touch with our Concord criminal law team today for answers to questions and help navigating a situation that can often feel overwhelming.

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