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Federal sentencing guidelines and downward departures, P.1

Sentencing is an important aspect of federal criminal cases. Although Federal Sentencing Guidelines provide a sentencing range deemed appropriate to the offender’s convictions, judges do have the discretion to depart from the sentencing range. Sometimes judges will opt for a downward departure, which is a sentence that falls below the suggested sentencing range. In other cases, a judge will opt for an upward departure.

Judges don’t have ultimate discretion to depart from the established sentencing range, though. There are guidelines that spell out when it may be appropriate to deviate from a recommended sentencing range, and it is possible for a judge’s sentence to be reversed for abuse of discretion, even if doing so is usually difficult. 

A good example of what a downward departure looks like was on display earlier this month in the sentencing of Bob McDonnell, the former governor of Virginia who was convicted of public corruption for accepting over $150,000 in gifts and loans from a businessman promoting shady supplement products. Initially, it was determined that the appropriate sentence for McDonnell’s 11-count conviction was over 10 years in prison. Later, his sentencing range was reduced to between 6 ½ and 8 years in prison when an obstruction of justice enhancement was factored out of the calculation.

In the end, McDonnell’s sentence of two years in prison was a significant downward departure from even that reduced range. In our next post, we’ll look at how sentencing departures work in general and why McDonnell may have received such a significant downward departure in his case.

Source: Washington Times, “Bob McDonnell sentenced to 2 years in prison for public corruption,” David Sherfinski, Jan 6, 2015. 

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