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Federal sentencing explained

It's safe to say that federal sentencing is complicated. A United States District Judge will sentence a defendant convicted of a federal felony offense. In most instances, the court will rely on a Pre-Sentence Investigation Report ("PSR") for essential information about the offender and the offense. The court will consider several factors from the law written by Congress that guides the sentencing process (18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)), and a number of issues outlined in the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. If the conviction was based on a plea agreement with the federal prosecutor, it may contain explicit terms that limit the sentencing recommendations or arguments that either party can make.


The defense attorney will be responsible for filing sentencing documents, letters, exhibits, and requests for downward departures under the Guidelines and variances from § 3553(a). There will also be an opportunity to object to the PSR to ensure that accurate facts are included and to challenge legal recommendations or application of the relevant Guidelines provisions. The defendant will have an opportunity to speak to the judge at the sentencing hearing. The prosecutor will also have the ability to file sentencing recommendations, memoranda, objections to the PSR, and to advocate for her recommended sentence.


The sentencing judge will review all of these written materials, arguments, and any statement from the defendant in fashioning the appropriate sentence. The court will make findings on the record concerning the relevant facts and law, the offender, and the needs and objectives for sentencing. The sentence will be announced in open court and could include terms of supervision in lieu of custody or in addition to any jail or prison term imposed. The punishment could include fines, assessments, forfeiture, and restitution depending on the nature of the case.


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