What Are Sentencing Guidelines?
No matter where you are sentenced, your sentence will be determined, at least in part, based on sentencing guidelines. Sentencing guidelines recommend a sentence or a sentencing range based on the defendant’s criminal history and the charged offense.
What sentencing guidelines apply?
There are different sentencing guidelines that apply depending on whether you are in federal or state court. In federal court, the applicable guidelines are published by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The most recent guidelines come from the 2021 Guidelines Manual.
On the other hand, if you are in state court, the applicable guidelines are published by similar groups in your state. For instance, in Michigan, the Michigan Judicial Institute publishes the state’s guidelines. The most recent version are called the Michigan Sentencing Guidelines and were updated earlier this year.
What do sentencing guidelines do?
In a case called Payne v Tennessee, the United States Supreme Court said that the purpose of sentencing guidelines is to “provide for very precise calibration of sentences, depending upon a number of factors,” including “factors relate both to the subjective guilt of the defendant and to the harm caused by his acts.”
But these guidelines are not mandatory. This means that while judges must consider them, they do not need to follow them. If a judge follows them, an appeals court will assume that the sentence is reasonable. But, if a judge departs from the guidelines, then the judge must explain why the increase or decrease was necessary.
How do sentencing guidelines work?
Sentencing guidelines work in a relatively straightforward way. In Michigan, for example, you start with your criminal history to calculate your Prior Record Variable score. Michigan has 7 PRVs to score. PRV 1, for example, looks at prior high severity felony convictions. You get zero points if you have 0 prior high severity felony convictions, 25 points if you have 1, 50 if you have 2, and 75 if you have 3 or more.
After calculating your PRV score, you calculative your Offense Variable score. Michigan has 20 OVs to score. OV 1, for example, looks at aggravated use of a weapon. If no aggravated use of a weapon occurred, you score OV 1 at 0 points. If you discharged a firearm at or toward someone or cut or stabbed them, you score OV 1 at 25 points. And, for conduct in between those two, you can score OV 1 at 5, 10, 15 and 20 points as well.
Using your PRV score, your OV score and the correct sentencing grid based on the applicable crime class, you can find your minimum sentencing range. The grid depends, at least in part, on whether you were convicted of an attempted offense, whether state law classifies you as a “habitual offender” and several other factors. Then judge can either choose a sentence in the applicable range or explain why a different sentence is more appropriate.
When you are sentenced for a criminal conviction, the judge must consider the applicable sentencing guidelines. Even though a judge must consider the, the judge does not have to follow them. If a judge chooses to depart from the sentencing guidelines, they must explain why.