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Downward Departure Framework in Federal Criminal Cases

In establishing a process by which a sentencing judge may depart outside the guideline range, the Federal Sentencing Commission recognized that “it is difficult to prescribe a single set of guidelines that encompasses the vast range of human conduct potentially relevant to a sentencing decision.” U.S.S.G. ch. 1, pt. A, intro. comment 4(b).

Cognizant of the fact that unusual or atypical cases would arise, the Sentencing Commission explicitly reserved a certain degree of flexibility to the sentencing court: “The Commission intends the sentencing courts to treat each guideline as carving out a ‘heartland,’ a set of typical cases embodying the conduct that each guideline describes.” Id. However, a departure may be warranted where “a particular guideline linguistically applies but where conduct significantly differs from the norm.” Id. Unless specifically forbidden, the Commission, in creating the Sentencing Guidelines, did “not intend to limit the kinds of factors, whether or not mentioned anywhere else in the guidelines, that could constitute grounds for departure in an unusual case.” Id. See also Koon v. United States, 518 U.S. 81, 98 (19__)(recognizing departure decisions as “embod[ying] the traditional exercise of discretion by a sentencing court”).

Although the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are now advisory, most federal judges rely on the guidelines as a baseline for sentencing. It is critical that a federal crimes attorney be familiar with the vast universe of available downward departures available for his client.

For further information regarding downward departures in Federal criminal cases, please consult former Assistant United states AttorneyAndrew C. White for a complimentary consultation.

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