How to take advantage of new Federal Sentencing Guidelines to have your sentence reduced

New amendments to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, effective as of November 2023, allow for the reduction or elimination of prison sentences for qualified inmates.

If you’ve been convicted of a federal crime or are currently facing federal charges, you may be able to take advantage of the new guidelines. A federal criminal defense attorney can help determine whether you might benefit from the new sentencing guidelines and assist you through the legal process.

Call attorney Robert M. Helfend today for a free consultation and case review at 805-273-5611.

New law to release inmates 2024

In April of 2023, the United States Sentencing Commission submitted to Congress an amendment to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Amendment 821, also known as the “2023 Criminal History Amendment,” stands to reduce or eliminate prison sentences for many federal offenders. 

These new sentencing guidelines not only apply to future defendants, but they also apply retroactively, in some cases, to offenders who were sentenced under the previous guidelines. The United States Sentencing Commission estimates that over 10,000 currently incarcerated inmates could be eligible for early release in 2024, while over 7,000 may be eligible to apply for a sentence reduction. 

How do the federal sentencing guidelines work?

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are essentially a rulebook, designed by the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC). Their purpose is to ensure fair and consistent sentencing in federal cases. The USSC is an independent agency of the judicial branch of the federal government whose primary role is to establish the Federal Sentencing Guidelines which provide federal judges with a standardized system for issuing sentences and penalties. 

The guidelines consider the nature of the offense, categorized by “offense levels,” as well as the background and characteristics of the offender, expressed in terms of “criminal history categories.” Based on these two categories, they provide a range of appropriate penalties for the judge to consider when determining sentencing. The goal of providing such guidelines is to ensure that similar penalties are issued in similar cases throughout the United States. It is, however, possible for a judge to issue a sentence that deviates from what is recommended in the guidelines. Nonetheless, the judge is expected to consult them and to provide extensive justification for issuing an alternative sentence.  

The United States Sentencing Commission is also responsible for updating and changing the guidelines as needed. The adoption of Amendment 821 is part of the first set of changes made to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines since 2018. 

New federal sentencing guidelines effective November 1, 2023

The new amendments apply to offenders sentenced after November 1, 2023, with some amendments also applying retroactively. This means that, regardless of when you were convicted, you may be eligible for a reduced sentence. Some of the changes included in the new amendments are:

  • Sentence reductions for certain offenders with health risks 
  • Offenders who serve as caregivers for disabled or elderly family members may be given less prison time
  • Early release for inmates who were abused or sexually assaulted by correctional officers while incarcerated
  • Lighter sentences for first-time offenders 
  • Sentence reductions for offenders who are currently on parole or probation
  • Release or reduced sentences for inmates who were convicted of breaking a law that has since been changed 

More information on each of these changes is provided below.

Sentence reduction based on criminal history

Amendment 821 has two important parts (Part A and Part B) that are relevant to certain offenders based on their criminal history. With the release of the new federal sentencing policy, judges will consider the reduced sentences when they apply to future defendants.  In August of 2023, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to also allow eligible offenders who are already incarcerated to petition for sentence reductions. Petitions for incarcerated individuals will be available as of February 1, 2024. 

We’ll explain more about how a person’s criminal history is scored and how it is relevant to Amendment 821 below.

The criminal history “point system”

Each individual’s federal criminal history score is calculated using a “point system.” This point system corresponds to a sentencing table in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, where different point categories apply to different levels of sentencing. A higher score means a higher criminal history category, which recommends a harsher sentence for a given offense.

This means that a defendant who has only a couple of minor offenses in their history is likely to receive a lighter punishment than a defendant with a number of more serious offenses on their record. 

Criminal history points are generally determined as follows:

  • Three points are added for “each prior sentence of imprisonment exceeding one year and one month”
  • Two points are added for each prior sentence of imprisonment lasting sixty days or more
  • One point is added for any additional convictions, up to a maximum of four points. Two additional points are added for an offense that was committed while still under a “criminal justice sentence,” such as probation 
  • One point is added, to a maximum of 3, for each prior conviction of a “crime of violence” that hasn’t yet been given points because it was convicted alongside other crimes and counted as a single sentence

While this is the general process for calculating criminal history points, it is important to note that there can be exceptions, limitations, and enhancements which will affect the score. 

Amendment 821 makes a couple of important changes to the criminal history point system:

  1. Removing the addition of extra “status points” for offenders with less extensive criminal backgrounds
  2. The introduction of the “zero-point offender” as a criminal history category

Part A: elimination of “status points” for less serious offenders

“Status points” are extra points that are each time an offense is committed while the defendant is still under a “criminal justice sentence,” such as parole or probation. Amendment 821 prevents status points from being added when a defendant has six or fewer points. Status points may still be added if an offender has more prior convictions resulting in more than six points on their record.

Part B: lighter sentencing for “zero-point offenders”

A new sentencing category has been added for offenders with zero criminal history points. So-called “zero-point offenders” would receive a two-level reduction in their sentencing. Reasons and offender might fall into the zero-point category are:

  • They have no prior convictions
  • They have prior convictions that occurred too far in the past
  • Their prior convictions are from tribal court, foreign jurisdictions, or can’t be counted for other reasons

2-point reduction for federal inmates in 2024

A zero-point offender needs to meet some additional criteria in order to qualify for the two-level reduction. The offense for which they were convicted must not be:

  • A sexual offense
  • A terrorism-related offense, or
  • A civil rights violation

Additional criteria regarding the circumstances of the offense include:

  1. No threats or violence were used
  2. It did not result in death or serious bodily injury
  3. It did not involve firearms or dangerous weapons
  4. It did not include aggravating factors
  5. No substantial financial hardship was caused as a result

Reduced sentences for offenders with certain health conditions

The recent amendments provide some specific sentencing guidelines for offenders whose health or age puts them at risk of severe health problems or death while incarcerated. Previously, “compassionate release” has been the term used to refer to the early termination of a prison term based on reasons that the court finds “extraordinary and compelling.” The new amendments provide judges with two new, highly specific categories upon which to base a reduced sentence:

  1. Medical Condition of the Defendant – if a defendant has a serious medical condition for which the necessary specialized care cannot be provided by the staff and facilities of the Department of Corrections, they may be granted a sentence reduction. 
  1. Infectious Disease Outbreaks – if a disease outbreak occurs in a correctional facility, inmates with certain pre-existing medical conditions may be at higher risk. Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Sentencing Commission created this category to protect inmates who may be at high risk of health complications or death from exposure to a pathogen.  

Reduced sentences for caregivers of disabled family members

It has previously been possible for an offender to receive a reduced sentence based on “family circumstances.” However, the new amendments account for three more specific circumstances under which a reduced sentence may be recommended:

  1. Caregiver of a disabled child – the offender is the caregiver of a minor, under 18 years of age, who is medically incapacitated or disabled
  1. Caregiver of an incapacitated parent – the offender is the sole caregiver of a parent who is medically incapacitated
  1. Special family-related circumstances – the offender’s circumstances are similar to those above, but the family member in question may be a non-biological relative or member of their extended family, or the situation is otherwise unique yet comparable

Early release for prisoners sentenced under old laws

As laws are changed and actions that were once considered to be crimes are legalized or decriminalized, it is necessary for the judicial system to consider the release of inmates who are currently incarcerated under the old law. The 2023 federal sentencing changes allow for the early release of inmates whose current sentences might now be considered unfair due to changes in law. This rule is standardized throughout the United States. If you think that you or a loved one might be eligible for early release based on changes in the law, contact our office today for more information 805-273-5611.

Early release for offenders who were abused or assaulted while incarcerated 

Unlawful harm against prisoners at the hands of prison officers or employees does, unfortunately, occur with some frequency. Inmates who have been abused, sexually assaulted, or physically harmed by prison staff are now eligible for early release. This includes misconduct by correctional officers, prison employees, and contractors for the Bureau of Prisons. The early release rule does not apply to violence committed by other inmates.

Will inmates automatically receive an early release in 2024?

While future offenders will be sentenced under the new guidelines, inmates who are currently incarcerated will not automatically be granted early release in 2024. Eligible individuals will need to petition for early release with the help of a criminal defense attorney. Those who are already scheduled to be released before February 1, 2024 are not eligible. 

For assistance with determining your eligibility and petitioning for early release, contact attorney Robert M. Helfend at 805-273-5611.

What does the judge consider when deciding whether a reduction is warranted?

The sentencing guidelines require the judge to consider similar factors when determining whether to grant a reduction as they do when initially sentencing an offender. Those factors include:

  • Potential risk to public safety
  • The nature and circumstances of the offense
  • Deterrence 
  • The individual’s character
  • Record of individual’s behavior while in prison

While the judge will consider the circumstances that may suggest early release would be appropriate, potential risks to public safety are of the utmost concern. The nature and seriousness of the crime as well as the individual’s prison record will be particularly important.  

Get expert legal help from an experienced federal attorney

The changes to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines that went into effect on November 1, 2023, mean that thousands of offenders may now be eligible for early release in 2024.

If you believe that you or a loved one may qualify for a reduced sentence based on the information provided above, your first step is to contact a federal defense attorney who can help you navigate the court system. With over three decades of experience representing clients in federal cases, attorney Robert M. Helfend understands the impact that a federal conviction can have on an individual and their family. That’s why he is dedicated to helping clients take advantage of legal policies that afford them the fair and equitable treatment they deserve. Call Robert M. Helfend today for a free consultation at 805-273-5611.