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Federal sentencing guidelines and downward departures, P.3

In our last couple posts, we’ve been exploring the topic of downward departures in the context of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. We’ve already discussed the basic approach used by the guidelines in determining a defendant’s sentencing range for fraud-related offenses. Here we want to discuss what the guidelines say on the topic of downward departures, both in general and with respect to crimes of fraud.

For fraud offenses, a federal judge may be justified in a downward departure from a sentencing range on various grounds. Under the section of the Guidelines Manual dealing with fraud offenses, downward departure may be justified in cases where the offense level under the guideline “substantially overstates the seriousness of the offense.” In cases involving major disaster or emergency victims accused of defrauding a government agency, downward departure may be justified when the illegally received benefits were an extension or over-payment of legitimate benefits.  

In addition to these specific grounds listed under the fraud guideline, the manual also provide general grounds for a downward departure. We list some of these below:

  • Mitigating circumstances that the guideline for a specific crime does not adequately take into account
  • Substantial assistance to authorities
  • Cases where the defendant committed the crime to avoid what they perceived to be more serious harm
  • Coercion, duress, or diminished mental capacity
  • Voluntary disclosure of the offense to authorities

These are not the only possible grounds for departure, but the most common ones. In our next post, we’ll wrap up this discussion of downward departures and offer some comments on how a criminal defense attorney can help advocate for a defendant with respect to a downward departure.

Source: U.S. Sentencing Commission, “Guidelines Manual,” Accessed Jan. 16, 2015.

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