Understanding and Calculating Federal Punishment Ranges – Texas Federal Attorney 

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

In 1987 the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, as part of the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) went into effect with the goal of making federal punishments more consistent. Under the system, the sentencing court would use the guidelines to sentence a defendant somewhere within the sentencing range.

United States v. Booker

In 2005, Supreme Court in United States v. Booker ruled the mandatory guideline system was unconstitutional. In holding such, the court removed the language from the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) requiring judges to sentence with the sentencing range in most cases. Under the theory in In holding such, the court removed the language from the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) requiring judges to sentence with the sentencing range in most cases. Under the theory in Booker, judges would have more flexibility to evaluate cases individually and apply punishments as the court saw fit. In reality, sentencing has not changed much after Booker.

Calculating the Federal Punishment Range

The sentencing range is determined by matching the offense level numbers with the criminal history category. Before imposing a sentence, the court is required under law to consider this initial range.


I. Select the Offense Guideline & Determine The Base Offense Level

The Guidelines Manual lists most federal offenses. If a federal crime is not listed, the most similar crime should be used. Once the federal offense is located the base-offense level can be determined. The base-offense level is the lowest or minimum level for a particular federal crime.

For example, the base-offense level under Section 2B1.1(a)(2), embezzlement, is six (6). If a person is convicted of embezzlement he or she will start out at a base-offense level of six (6), regardless of the case facts.

II. Do any Specific Offense Characteristic (SOC) apply?

Specific Offense Characteristics add or deduct from the base-offense level and include such things as the victim’s monetary loss, whether a gun was used, etc.
In the above embezzlement example, if the loss exceeded $5,000, two (2) levels would be added to the base of six (6); two plus six equals eight. If the loss exceeded $1,000,000, sixteen (16) levels would be added to the base; sixteen plus six equals twenty-two (22).

III. Cross References and Special Instructions

The guidelines may also list cross references and special instructions. Cross references tell the court to apply a different offense guideline under certain circumstances. Special instructions tell the court how to apply the guidelines in a particular situation. Either, both, or none may apply given the nature of the federal crime.

IV. Additional Adjustments

Unlike the aforementioned cross references and special instructions, these adjustments apply to all offenses.

A) Defendant’s role: Two to four levels can be added based on a defendant’s leadership role. Likewise, two to four levels can be subtracted if the defendant’s role was minor. An upward increase can occur if the defendant was in a position of trust, special skill (i.e. doctor, lawyer, etc.), used someone under the age of 18 to help commit the offense, etc.

B) Obstruction of Justice: This provision is often used against defendant’s who testify and commit perjury, destroying evidence or threaten witnesses.

C) Victim: Levels can be added if the victim was vulnerable, a government official, restrained, or if the offense promoted terrorism.

V. Multiple Counts

Where there are multiple counts, thus multiple offense levels, they must be combined to determine a whole case level. This is done by either grouping or taking the most serious count and adding levels to it.

A) Grouping: counts are grouped together when they are closely related.

For example, if a person was convicted of two counts of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, the total amount of marijuana would be added together to establish the base-offense level.

B) When Grouping Does Not Apply: Not all federal offenses can be grouped together. When this occurs, the court will look to the multiple counts, determine which is the most serious offense, and begin adding levels to it.

VI. Accepting Responsibility: defendant’s who accept responsibility may be entitled to a two to three-level reduction.

VII. Criminal History: prior criminal history is used to with the base-offense level to find the overall range. Some minor offenses are not included. Pretrial diversion programs are typically not included. Foreign convictions do not apply. Juvenile sentences typically do not apply.

VIII. Guideline Range: Adding it all up (offense level plus criminal history) to determine the punishment range.

For example, using an actual federal sentencing table, if the offense level was a six (6) and you have no prior criminal history, placing you in criminal history category one (I) then your punishment range is zero (0) – six (6) months in federal prison. The zero (0) also makes you eligible for probation.

Texas Federal Attorney and Law Firm

Federal Sentencing Guidelines Zones


Zone A: The guidelines recommend probation
Zone B: The guidelines recommend probation with a term of confinement. The confinement can be in the form of a halfway house or home confinement.
Zone C: A split sentence may apply in Zone C (i.e. 1/2 in prison & 1/2 in home confinement or halfway house).
Zone D (not pictured)While the guidelines do not recommend probation in Zone D, creative Texas Federal Attorneys have been able to urge judges for split sentences in appropriate cases.

3553(A) Factors, Departures, and Variances

After a range has been calculated the court must consider factors known as 3553(a) factors, appropriately found in 18 U.S.C. 3553(a). These factors include:

  • nature and circumstances of the offense;
  • history and characteristics of the defendant;
  • purposes of sentencing;
  • sentencing options;
  • sentencing policy (i.e. unique case factors, 5k2 factors, extraordinary discouraged factors)
  • the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities; and
  • the need for restitution.


Guideline departures may be either upward or downward and are referenced in the Sentencing Guidelines Manual (a non-referenced departure is known as a variance). A court’s departure from the guidelines should be “sufficient, but not greater than necessary.”

Other federal sentencing departures may result from government cooperation or substantial assistance.

Contact a Top Texas Federal Attorney

This explanation of federal sentencing only scratches the surface. As you can see a lot goes into obtaining the best possible outcome for your federal case. If you have been arrested for a federal crime, it’s essential to talk with an experienced Texas federal attorney about your case. A Top Texas federal attorney will examine your case and provide proven defenses. Contact the nationally recognized Houston federal criminal defense firm of Adamo and Adamo today!