Are Federal Sentencing Guidelines Mandatory?


When a judge or jury convicts an individual of a crime, their legal punishment for that crime is known as their “sentence.” Sentences in criminal convictions typically involve one or more combinations of incarceration, probation, parole, and fines. While judges have some leeway in sentencing decisions in state and local courts, many crimes, such as crimes of violence, come with mandatory sentencing guidelines within each state. When a federal prosecutor from the U.S. Justice System brings a case against an individual in Federal Court, a conviction may come with sentencing through federal guidelines or mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.

What are Federal Crimes?

Many federal laws with mandatory sentencing guidelines are drug offenses. However, many other crimes are federal crimes prosecuted by the U.S. Justice System. These include but aren’t limited to:

  • Gun law violations
  • Child pornography
  • Counterfeiting
  • Contempt of court
  • Cyber crimes, hacking, and computer crimes
  • Destruction of audit records or federal investigation records
  • Copyright violations
  • Counterintelligence operations
  • Crimes committed on Indian reservations and aboard aircraft
  • Racketeering
  • Many types of financial crimes
  • Terrorism

These are just a few of the most commonly prosecuted federal crimes in the United States.

Understanding Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Convictions for certain federal crimes come with mandatory minimum sentencing. Congress sets these sentencing laws rather than court judges. A conviction of certain federal crimes automatically sentences the individual to at least the minimum mandatory sentence imposed for the crime by Congress. For instance, selling 280 grams or more of cocaine triggers an automatic mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years behind bars.

Judges have very little room for exceptions to mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes. Typically, they can sentence a convicted person to more than the mandatory minimum sentence for the crime, but not less than the minimum.

What Are Federal Sentencing Guidelines?

In 1987, the United States Federal Court established federal sentencing guidelines to promote more uniform sentencing for specific crimes across the U.S. rather than allowing states to vary widely in their sentencing for the same or similar crimes. While mandatory minimum sentences don’t allow for a judge’s discretion, the federal sentencing guidelines are NOT mandatory. A judge can adopt a convict’s sentence to fit the circumstances in whatever way they deem proper for the case by changing the level of the crime. These guidelines are advisory rather than mandatory and include a sentencing table and specific formulas for sentencing those convicted.

If a federal judge decides against adhering to the federal sentencing guidelines, the law compels them to explain what factors contributed to their decision to depart from the recommended sentencing.

Federal sentencing guidelines factor in both the nature of an offense and the criminal history of the convicted individual. If a suspect faces conviction on multiple counts, the guidelines also provide a formula for arriving at a combined offense level with sentencing guidelines for that level of offense. Factors including the convict’s role in the offense, their acceptance of responsibility for their actions, and whether or not they obstructed justice in the case also come into play in sentencing guidelines to increase or decrease the level of the crime and the sentencing recommendations that apply.