• Michael Stanski

Three important things you need to know about federal sentencing

Federal sentencing is a complex process and cannot be reduced down to a single article.

This article discusses three important things you need to know about federal sentencing: United States Probation Service, the Presentence Report, and Guideline Range.

United States Probation Service: Most individuals unfamiliar with the federal criminal justice system assume that sentencing is decided by the judge after the prosecutor and defense attorney have had opportunity to be heard. This is incorrect. Federal sentencing involves the judge and three groups of people. 1. Defendant and his/her defense counsel; 2. Prosecutor and victim; and 3. United States Probation Service. What is the United States Probation Service and why is it important?


United States Probation Service is an office funded by the United States Government. In sentencing its mission is to investigate and assess a defendant found guilty or who has plead guilty. The purpose of this investigation is inform the sentencing judge of everything that judge needs to make an appropriate sentence. United States Probation Service informs the sentencing judge by publishing a presentence report (discussed below).

Why is it important to know about United States Probation Service? Often United States Probation Service offices will put incorrect facts or inappropriate conclusions into the presentence report. When this occurs defense counsel will have to bring these errors to the judge’s attention.


Presentence Report: This document is published by United States Probation Service approximately two months after an entry of guilty by plea or at trial. It is by far the most important document in the federal sentencing process and likely the first document the judge reads. The report is lengthy and covers information on the offense and criminal history of the defendant. Background on the defendant is also included such as financial status, health, relationships, and other personal information. Presentence report also includes sentencing options for the sentencing judge to consider such as fines, imprisonment, supervised release, etc. Given the seriousness of most federal crimes imprisonment is usually always received by a defendant. Within the presentence report is a guideline range calculation made by the probation service officer. This is what will be discussed next.


Guideline Range: At its core federal sentencing is a math equation where the seriousness of the crime and criminal history of the defendant are considered to produce a guideline range. Guideline range is a range of two numbers shown as months. See sentencing guideline chart below.

Why is the range important? If the guideline range has been calculated correctly then it will have a “presumption of reasonableness.” This means if a judge sentences a defendant within the guideline range then a challenge to that sentence is unlikely to be successful.

A sentencing judge can sentence a defendant to a sentence outside the guideline range after hearing from the defense counsel and prosecutors. However there has to be reasons articulated by the attorneys why a non-guideline sentence should be entered.


This article is by no means comprehensive. United States Probation Service, the Presentence Report, and Guideline Range are, however, the most important things a person needs to know about federal sentencing.


DISCLAIMER: This information is provided for educational purposes only. Laws, regulations, and rules constantly change and information is valid for the date published only. No legal advice is given. No attorney client relationship has been formed by reading this entry. Each case is different and you should consult with a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction before undergoing any legal proceeding.

Jacksonville, Florida