Sentencing for federal crimes in Tennessee may appear arbitrary if you don’t understand the details of how sentencing works. Several factors go into a judge’s sentence, and it is usually determined by a combination of mandatory minimums and federal sentencing guidelines.
Mandatory minimum sentences
Congress creates mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. These mandatory minimums are automatic and allow no flexibility by a judge. If you are convicted of selling 28 grams of crack cocaine, for example, there is a mandatory minimum 5-year prison sentence.
Most mandatory minimum sentences apply to drug-related crimes, but there are other federal crimes that also have mandatory minimums. Certain weapons, financial, and pornography offenses have mandatory minimum sentences that were set up by Congress.
Federal sentencing guidelines manual
When there is no mandatory minimum sentence, a judge may consult the federal sentencing guidelines manual to determine a sentence. These guidelines are only advisory, though, and a judge is free to use his discretion when sentencing a crime that has no mandatory minimum.
The guidelines use a point system that starts with a “base offense level.” Points will then be added or subtracted for various factors in a person’s unique situation. For example, points may be added to the base level if an accused person enlisted a minor to help them with their crime. Points may be subtracted from the base level if the accused person played only a minor role in the crime. When the new level has been calculated, the judge will look up the advisory sentence in the sentencing table.
Departures from sentencing guidelines
Judges have the power to consider a person’s unique circumstances and use “departures” to recalculate a sentence. For example, a person’s criminal history may result in a higher calculated sentence. If a judge thinks the extra points create an unnecessarily tough sentence, those points can be deducted from the calculation.