Changes to Federal Sentencing Guidelines Affect Definitions of “Crimes of Violence” and “Career Offenders”

John Roberts, Esq.
Arseneault & Fassett, LLP

 

Changes to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines have redefined “crime of violence” and “career offenders” for sentencing purposes. These changes affect key aspects of the Guidelines which Federal courts use to determine some of the most lengthy sentences.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission recognized that the previous definition of “crime of violence” was widely considered complex and unclear. The Commission was further prodded by the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Johnson v. United States, which found that the broad language used to define “violent felony” in the Armed Career Criminal Act — coincidentally, the same language used in the previous version of the Guidelines — was unconstitutionally vague. Finally, the Commission found that courts were imposing an increasing proportion of sentences below the Guideline ranges.

In the latest changes to the Guidelines, the Commission narrowed the definition of “crime of violence” by removing the impermissibly broad language, and revised and narrowed the list of offenses that are always deemed crimes of violence. For example, burglary of a dwelling and involuntary manslaughter have been removed from the enumerated offenses, while the use and even the unlawful possession of certain firearms have been added.

In another change, the Commission added a provision for downward departures to the Guidelines governing “career criminals.” Defendants who are deemed to be career criminals receive the harshest sentences, often at or near the statutory maximums. The latest change permits courts to depart from the Guidelines and impose a lower sentence where one of the defendant’s prior convictions was classified as a felony by the Federal Guidelines but as a misdemeanor by the State. This change provides an opportunity for an astute defense attorney to advocate for a more just sentence than a strict interpretation of the Guidelines would otherwise result in.

The Guidelines greatly influence the sentences that Federal judges impose. Criminal statutes, enacted by Congress, impose a very broad range of potential sentences for federal crimes – for example, anywhere from zero to ten years. The Guidelines are designed to help judges to narrow down the appropriate sentencing range for a particular defendant to a matter of months – for example, 0 to 6 months, or 33 to 41 months, or 87 to 96 months – and thus provide uniformity of sentences for similar criminal conduct throughout the Federal court system.

To achieve this goal, the Guidelines provide courts with a multitude of complicated formulas which consider, among other things, the law that was violated; the specific facts of each case such as the number of victims, the seriousness of the loss or damage, and the role that each defendant played; and the defendant’s criminal history, if any. Even small adjustments in these factors can make the difference between a fair sentence and a harsh one.

Although Congress established the U.S. Sentencing Commission which created and maintain the Guidelines, the Supreme Court determined that the Guidelines are not mandatory upon Federal courts. Judges are authorized to impose sentences above or below the Guidelines, based on the unique facts and legal arguments that prosecutors and defense attorneys advocate before the court.

These latest changes to the Guidelines underscore the importance that anyone who has been charged with — or is even under investigation for — a Federal offense should immediately consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney who has an intimate knowledge of the latest Guidelines. While every attorney’s goal is always to avoid having any sentence imposed on a client, the most effective attorneys will also consider all the nuances of the Guidelines to advise and advocate for the best possible result.

Kathleen Kelleher

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