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Felony Sentencing Guidelines

Criminal sentences are supposed to be proportionate to the crime. That is, they should "fit the crime." Therefore, felonies carry harsher sentences than misdemeanors do. To ensure defendants with similar criminal histories who commit similar crimes get similar punishments, both the federal government and the states have sentencing guidelines for judges to consult.

Sentencing Depends on the Class of Felony

Sentencing guidelines provide a framework for judges to determine an appropriate punishment for various types of crimes. In general, felony offenses, whether state or federal, carry a minimum sentence of one year in prison. Federal felony crimes are divided into classes, with increasing maximum sentences based on the severity of the crime:

  • Class "E" felonies are the least serious and carry penalties of up to three years in prison.
  • Class "D" through "B" felonies are increasingly serious and carry maximum prison terms from six years to 25 years.
  • Class "A" felonies are the most serious and can earn you life without parole or any other period of time. They may also be eligible for the death penalty.

Using the federal Guidelines Manual and Sentencing Table (PDF), a judge can see recommended sentences that take into account the felony class as well as the defendant's criminal history. This allows for someone with no criminal history to get a lighter sentence than a career criminal for the identical crime, while still staying within the published guidelines.

States classify felonies in a manner similar to the federal system, although some states have more or fewer classes, and some use number rather than letter classifications. The sentence ranges for each class also vary by state.

Deviating From Felony Sentencing Guidelines

For most crimes, sentencing guidelines are just that: guidelines. Judges are free to consider the specifics of each case in handing down a final sentence and may give sentences outside the suggested range. One common factor judges consider is the defendant's behavior before, during, or after the crime.

Actions that can cause a judge to increase the sentence above the suggested maximum are called aggravating factors. For example, higher sentences may be warranted if the crime included:

  • Death of one or more persons
  • Serious physical injury to a victim
  • Use of a weapon during the crime
  • Abduction

The judge may also consider mitigating factors that could be used to justify a sentence less than the suggested minimum, such as:

  • Assisting authorities in bringing additional perpetrators to justice
  • The victim's conduct contributing significantly to provoking the defendant
  • The defendant having been coerced or having committed the crime under duress

If you or a loved one has been accused or convicted of a felony, a criminal defense attorney can help you evaluate your options.