If you are facing federal criminal charges, incarceration may be a possibility. How much time you may spend behind bars likely depends on a few different factors. To better gauge your potential exposure, you should understand federal sentencing guidelines. 

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is an independent agency that establishes sentencing ranges for federal criminal offenses. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the agency’s guidelines are not mandatory. To deviate from sentencing guidelines, however, a federal judge must carefully explain his or her rationale. Here is how district court judges apply the federal sentencing guidelines. 

Setting the base level 

The federal sentencing guidelines assign levels to each possible criminal offense. There are 43 offense levels, with higher levels corresponding to more serious crimes. As such, when trying to determine how much incarceration time you may face, it is essential to first locate the base offense level. 

Applying special characteristics 

After you determine the base-offense level, you must apply special characteristics that may add points to the offense. For example, embezzlement has a base-offense level of six points. The federal sentencing guidelines apply a special-characteristics enhancement based on the value of embezzled funds. If a person embezzles only $5,000, there are no special characteristics. Embezzling $400 million, though, results in an addition of 36 points. 

Calculating adjustments 

Finally, some adjustments may result in the addition or subtraction of level points. Engaging in particularly bad conduct, such as destroying evidence, is likely to result in a two-point enhancement. Cooperating with investigators, though, may drop the guideline level by a couple of points. 

The federal sentencing guidelines are complex, so you may need assistance in understanding your potential exposure. Nonetheless, recognizing that sentencing guidelines are not mandatory may put your mind at ease. Either way, by carefully calculating how much possible prison time you are facing, you can better plan for defending yourself aggressively against federal criminal charges.