Perhaps the biggest difference between defending a criminal case in federal court versus trial courts in Georgia is the sentencing guidelines. The federal sentencing guidelines manual is complex, it includes over 500 pages of rules and formulas.
Often, to determine whether to go to trial, a person accused of a federal crime must be informed of the likely outcome of a plea and of trial. This is how one makes an informed decision. I have practiced as a federal prosecutor and private attorney since 2000. I have seen changes that have significantly affected the sentencing guidelines. The most significant change came in 2005 when the Unites States Supreme Court found that the guidelines would no longer be deemed mandatory (the “Booker” case). Prior to Booker, judges were largely compelled to follow the guidelines. Federal judges lacked discretion to determine what is a fair sentence. Lawyers were left to argue for a sentence within a narrow “guideline range.”
Today, federal judges have discretion and the lawyers advocating for clients are critical. A lawyer who has mastered the guidelines must first strive to place a client at the lowest possible guideline level. Then, the skilled attorney can argue for a “reasonable sentence” below the sentencing guideline range.
If you’d like to read the federal sentencing guidelines for yourself, they may be found at https://www.ussc.gov/guidelines.
The sentencing guidelines are one of the two most critical factors in determining what a sentence will likely be. The other is mandatory minimum sentences. I will discuss that in my next blog.