Federal Sentencing Guidelines

A Criminal Defense Lawyer in Knoxville Ready to Protect Your Rights

The federal government has its own guidelines that judges use when determining how much jail time to give someone. These guidelines are incredibly complicated, and novice lawyers often struggle to understand how much time in jail their clients are facing.

If you have been charged with a federal offense, you need to understand the sentencing guidelines. Hire an experienced criminal defense attorney in Knoxville for help. Below, we run through the factors used in the sentencing guidelines.

The Seriousness of the Alleged Offense

Not all crimes are equal. Killing someone in a bank robbery is more serious than merely taking money, and the federal guidelines recognize this fact. In fact, the severity of punishment tracks the severity of the offense, with more serious offenses receiving stiffer prison sentences and other penalties.

The federal guidelines recognize 43 offense levels. This is the base level offense, which is the starting point for figuring out the seriousness of your charged crime. Kidnapping, for example, has a base offense level of 32, which is very high. By contrast, payments to obtain public office has a base offense level of 8, which is low.

Specific Offense Characteristics

There are also certain factors involved in some crimes, which will either increase or decrease the base offense level. For example:

  • If you are charged with fraud, then the amount of money that you stole will increase the base level. If you stole $6,000, then there is a two-level increase. Since fraud starts at a base level 7, it will increase to a 9-level offense. If you stole much more money, then there is a greater level increase.
  • If you use a firearm in a robbery, then there is a 5-level increase to the base level. Since robbery starts with a base offense of 20, brandishing a weapon increases the offense level to 25. You will also see an increase if you actually discharge a firearm during the robbery.

Not every offense will have offense characteristics, but many do. An experienced Knoxville Criminal defense attorney can carefully review to determine what your base offense level will be.


Adjustments can apply to any crime and can increase or even decrease an offense level. Some of the more common adjustments include:

  • If the defendant knew that the defendant was especially vulnerable, such as because of age or mental retardation, then the offense level can go up by two levels.
  • If the defendant was not an active participant in the crime, the offense level can be adjusted downward by four levels.

Another key adjustment is whether the defendant accepts responsibility for his or her role in the crime. This is one reason why offenders can often get a decent plea deal if they admit responsibility for the crime. If the offender accepts responsibility, the level can be reduced by two levels. Many factors go into determining whether a defendant truly accepted responsibility, such as whether he admitted guilt before being convicted.

Criminal History

If you have a lengthy criminal history, you can expect harsher punishment than if this was your very first offense. The guidelines are designed to punish experienced criminals with longer prison sentences.

Once the court decides your offense level (after performing the calculations described above), it will then place you in a criminal history category. There are six categories. Category 1 is the least serious and the one that most first-time defendants find themselves in. Conversely, Category 6 is the most serious.

Your guideline range is determined by taking your offense level and looking at the recommended sentence based on your criminal history category. For example, the sentencing table might look like this, with the numbers representing the number of months you will spend in prison:

Offense Level Category I Category II Category III Category IV Category V Category VI
16 21-27 24-30 27-33 33-41 41-51 46-57
17 24-30 27-33 30-37 37-46 46-57 51-63

As you can see, defendants with an offense level face differing amounts of imprisonment based on their criminal history. Even if the offense level is the same, someone with no prior criminal history is looking at much less time in jail than someone who has been in and out of the criminal justice system. For example, someone at offense level 16 with no criminal history is looking at 21-27 months in prison. Conversely, someone with a Category VI criminal history is looking at 46-57 months.

Departing from the Guideline Range

The guidelines are not carved in stone. They are just that—guides for the judge to use. A judge ultimately has the discretion to depart from the guideline range in appropriate circumstances, so long as they put their reasons for departure in writing.

For example, a judge might depart downward if the defendant is very old or infirm or if the defendant provided assistance to law enforcement. A judge can also depart upwards for several reasons, such as obstruction of justice or if crime is the defendant’s livelihood.

Appellate courts will review a judge’s sentence to make sure it is not unreasonable. If the sentence is within the guideline range, then it is presumed reasonable, so many judges are hesitant to depart from the guidelines.

How an Attorney Can Help

A skilled criminal defense attorney can help reduce the time you spend in jail in several ways:

  • A lawyer can argue that certain downward adjustments should apply while certain specific offense characteristics and upward adjustments should not.
  • A lawyer can argue that your criminal history warrants being placed in a lower category.
  • A lawyer can argue that a judge should depart from the guidelines and award a lower sentence for certain mitigating factors.

The key is to find someone who has handled multiple federal criminal cases, who understands what evidence judges will find persuasive. A skilled Knoxville criminal defense attorney in your corner can significantly reduce the time you will spend in jail.

Contact a Knoxville Criminal Defense Lawyer Today to Schedule a Free Consultation

If you are facing federal charges, contact us today. At Barnes Law, we have represented many defendants in federal court, and we are eager to represent you, as well. Building a defense takes time, so the sooner you reach out to an attorney, the better.

For more information, please contact us today. You can schedule a free consultation by calling 865-805-5703 or submitting our online contact form.