I've Been In Your Shoes: What Is A Downward Departure In Federal Court?

I’ve Been In Your Shoes: What Is A Downward Departure In Federal Court?

By Richard McDonald

Federal judges use a sentencing table when choosing a sentence. The table considers two different factors. First, it considers the severity of your offense. Second, it considers your criminal history. (You can view the federal-court sentencing table here.)

For example, imagine a jury finds you guilty of wire fraud involving $1,000. For offense severity, you will score in Zone A. If you have no criminal history, you will score into Column I on the table. This gives you a sentence of 0 to 6 months in prison.

But imagine a jury finds you guilty of wire fraud involving $450,000. For offense severity, you will score in Zone D. If you have a long criminal history, you will score in Category III. In this situation, you’ll face a sentence of of 57 to 71 months.

Can you do something to change your sentencing range?

There are ways to negotiate a better plea than the ranges in the sentencing table. In federal court, one is by getting a “downward departure.” A downward departure occurs when judges choose a sentence below the regular range. It is usually a part of a plea deal. (You can read more about the definition of “downward departure” here.)

One way to get a downward departure is if you have information the government can use in another case. For example, imagine you face between 52 and 63 months according to the sentencing table.

But, if you have information that might help in another case, that could change. The prosecutor could agree to reduce your sentence to between 18 and 24 months.

Image courtesy of nirat via iStock by Getty Images.

Should you try to get a downward departure in federal court?

Participating in a downward departure can get you a lighter sentence. But it also comes with the risk of others labeling you a “snitch” in prison.

During intake, prison officials ask you if you testified against another party. They do this to ensure your safety. I have seen two prisoners sent to the same prison by mistake where one has testified against the other. When this happens, the BOP will transfer one of the inmates immediately.

But the chatter amongst the prison community is fierce. When I say “community,” I do not mean only the prisoners. Staff members also may struggle with confidentiality, and things get leaked.

Being labeled a snitch in prison is not a fun experience. The prison community does not treat snitches kindly. If you become known as a snitch in prison, it makes things difficult. I saw my peers lose some opportunities. For instance, some prisoners won’t let snitches join sports or activities.

I have also met prisoners who refused to become a snitch to get a downward departure. These prisoners are among the most respected in the facility. Respect in the prison community is worth its weight in gold.

The Takeaway:

You need to know the risks of becoming a snitch to get a downward departure. Talk about these risks with your attorney and family. This is a personal decision that you should take seriously. For some, it’s worth it to get home sooner. For others, the risk isn’t worth the reward.

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