Federal Sentencing Process: What You Need to Know

American flag, gavel, and federal sentencing attorney, David J. Kramer

The federal sentencing process can be complicated. If you are facing federal criminal charges, it is critical that you have an experienced federal attorney by your side.

If all your information about court procedure comes from the movies, you might think the judge issues a sentence immediately after the verdict, accompanied by several swift hammers with the gavel for dramatic effect.

However, that is not at all how federal sentencing works. Sentencing happens at a completely separate hearing after the trial is over. You might be surprised by how much discretion a judge has over the length and type of your sentence.

How Federal Sentencing Works

The government’s goal in a trial is to obtain a conviction, whether through a plea deal or a guilty verdict in trial.

Most cases don’t go to trial. Only about 5% of all cases will be tried in court, and the other 95% will end in a plea deal.

When a conviction is entered, there is a process to determine a sentence – it’s not just a pronouncement. Federal courts rely on particular factors outlined in 18 U.S.C. § 3553 when determining what sentence to impose in a given case.

Presentence Investigation

During this phase, the district probation office may interview your family members, obtain documents such as financial records, criminally history, health records, and school transcripts.

Written Report

After the investigation, the probation office writes a long report describing your family history, financial status, mental health problems, or addiction problems as well as give sentencing guidelines.

Presentence Report Review

When the report is finished, the probation office will file the report under seal. It’s also issued to the government and the defense, so both sides have a chance to file objections. Objections can be resolved at your sentencing hearing.

Government’s Sentencing Memo

Most of the time, the government will file a sentencing memo first asking for a specific range or a particular sentence and giving reasons for its request.

Defense Sentencing Memo

The defense gets its chance to file its memo in response to the government’s memo. The defense can make suggestions for sentencing range and make objections to the Presentence Report, although sometimes objections are made in a separate document. The sentencing memo is a chance for the defense to make its case. We can cite case law, evidence, or anything else we can use to support a position arguing for a more lenient sentence.

If the case has ended in a plea agreement where the sentence is proscribed, a defense sentencing memo could include more information on your background and good qualities.

For instance, if your family is likely to suffer hardship if you were to receive a long sentence, this is something pertinent to put into a sentencing memo. In some cases, it could work in your favor for your defense to create a sentencing video.

Court Sentencing Memo Review

Before the hearing, the court will review both sentencing memos.

Sentencing Hearing

Sometimes, the worst moment for a client is the end of a trial when they’re about to hear a verdict. However, other times, depending on the type of crime you’ve been convicted of, your case may have lasted anywhere from a few months to several years.

You may have entered into a plea deal rather than facing trial. Your sentencing hearing, therefore, can be the most nerve-wracking part of the whole ordeal.

Here’s what can go on at a sentencing hearing:

  • The judge will hear arguments on one or both sides on the objections to the Presentence Report (PSR).
  • It’s rare, but there could be expert witnesses or testimony.
  • Victims of the crime may give statements, describing its effect, or choose to provide written statements. This comes in conjunction with the prosecution presenting its position and the sentence it proposes.
  • Family members or friends may speak on your behalf as part of the defense presentation. Your lawyer will give a statement or argument for a lower sentence. The judge may ask questions.
  • The defendant has a chance to make a statement, which the judge seldom cuts short for any reason. Your statement can make an impact on the judge and possibly change your sentence in your favor or against you. It’s best to be prepared when you make a statement at your sentencing hearing. More on that later.
  • The judge will pronounce the sentence he’s determined.


Federal sentencing, like every part of the judicial process, can take a long time because our system gives defendants a chance to make their case all along the way – even after conviction.

Whether your family situation is difficult, or you want to give the judge more information about your past, your sentencing and presentencing time is a chance to argue for fair punishment, and to get your side heard.

Experienced Federal Sentencing Attorney in Michigan

Call my office today even if you have already been convicted. You can still fight for your rights!

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