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Can a Federal Sentence Be Reduced?

There are many differences between state and federal crimes, such as the types of offenses that are involved, how and where prosecution occurs, and perhaps most importantly for defendants, the length of the prison sentences resulting from the conviction. In many cases, defendants convicted of federal offenses receive much harsher penalties than those convicted of Pennsylvania state crimes. However, it might be possible to have these sentences shortened or reduced.

Defendants who are found guilty of federal crimes may find themselves facing years or even decades of incarceration, in addition to massive fines. Sentencing is based on the unique factors of your case, and you can argue for a shorter or reduced sentence based on multiple different factors. You might be able to take advantage of a unique federal rule or use mitigating circumstances to reduce your federal sentence.

If you or a family member needs information about fighting a federal charge or reducing a federal sentence, you should consult our experienced Philadelphia federal crimes lawyers. In this article, criminal defense attorney Lloyd Long explains how certain offenders may be able to shorten their federal sentences. Call our offices at (215) 302-0171 for a free case review.

What is a Rule 35 Reduction in Federal Sentencing?

According to the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), offenders who aid the federal government in prosecuting wanted criminals may be granted the opportunity to reduce their sentence if they provide “substantial assistance.” Substantial assistance is a subjective test to determine whether an offender’s aid was sufficient. A prosecutor has the discretion as to whether an offender helped enough to get a reduced sentence.

Generally, if an offender testifies against another person, they have provided substantial assistance. An offender who only offers information may have a difficult time getting a reduced sentence, depending on the depth of the information.

There are two common methods for reducing a federal sentence. The first method is known as a “substantial assistance motion,” or a § 5K1.1 motion. It is filed before the offender is sentenced and, if approved, is granted during the original sentencing. The second method arises out of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(b) and is performed after the offender is sentenced, which requires the offender to be resentenced.

Substantial Assistance Motions

The substantial assistance motion is a request for the sentencing court to “depart downward” under the appropriate sentencing guidelines. To depart downward means that a court is considering granting an offender a shorter sentence. There are several factors that a court may consider when determining whether an offender’s sentence should be reduced, including the following:

  • The value of the defendant’s assistance to the government and the government’s assessment of the helpfulness of the defendant’s information
  • The veracity and dependability of testimony or information received from the defendant
  • The type of information and weight of the information the defendant provides
  • Whether the defendant or the defendant’s family is at risk because they are aiding the government
  • Whether the defendant’s information is immediately helpful

It is important to note that failure to assist the government cannot be used as an aggravating factor during sentencing.

Rule 35 Motions

Unlike a substantial assistance motion, Rule 35 motions occur after a defendant has already been sentenced. Other than timing, Rule 35 motions tend to operate in much the same way as substantial assistance motions. Whether or not your sentence is reduced depends on how helpful your assistance is to federal prosecutors.

A Rule 35 reduction is performed after an offender is convicted because the government may need an offender to cooperate after they have been sentenced. The opportunity for a convicted defendant to assist might not arise until after sentencing. For example, after a defendant is convicted and sentenced for a federal crime, their criminal partner might be apprehended and put on trial. The opportunity to assist prosecutors by testifying against your former partner-in-crime was not possible until after you began serving your sentence. Rule 35 reductions also operate on the substantial assistance rule. If the government believes the offender has provided adequate help, a motion can be filed under Rule 35 to shorten the offender’s prison sentence.

These are not all of the methods that can be used to potentially decrease a federal prison sentence. There may be other circumstances unique to your case that can help you negotiate for a reduced sentence. Our Philadelphia federal crimes defense attorneys can help you find the best way to reduce your sentence.

How Much Can Your Sentence Be Decreased?

The amount that your sentence can be reduced depends on a few factors. Ordinarily, a § 5K1.1 motion and a Rule 35 motion would reduce an offender’s sentence by about two levels or 15%. However, there is a possibility that a sentence could be decreased even lower than the standard 15% reduction. Our Philadelphia federal crimes defense attorneys can argue for the lowest sentence possible.

When a federal sentence is decreased using a § 5K1.1 motion or Rule 35 motion, the judge has the discretion to disregard mandatory minimums for sentencing. This means that if your 15% reduction brings your sentence to lower than the mandatory minimum, the judge can give you a sentence that is below the mandatory minimum. For example, if you were convicted of a crime with a minimum five-year sentence and were sentenced to five years, a 15% sentence reduction would bring your sentence lower than the minimum, which a judge can approve.

Using Mitigating Factors to Reduce a Federal Sentence

Many crimes, both at the state and federal level, allow the judge a certain degree of discretion at sentencing. This discretion is often limited and must adhere to specific sentencing guidelines. Still, there is a chance that a judge could choose to sentence you to a lesser sentence within the appropriate guidelines.

Where discretion at sentencing is permitted, a judge may weigh the mitigating and aggravating factors. Aggravating factors are not good as they will work against you. These include details about your offense that make you look bad. For example, if a crime was particularly violent and the defendant shows little remorse, they come off as very unsympathetic, and the judge might feel a longer sentence is appropriate. However, suppose the crime was non-violent, and the defendant has repeatedly professed their regret and remorse. In that case, a judge might be inclined to use this mitigating factor to reduce their sentence.

As mentioned before, a judge’s discretion in using mitigating and aggravating factors can only go so far. Most offenses must be sentenced according to guidelines. These guidelines provide a sort of range for a sentence. While the judge could choose to sentence you on the lower end of the range, they must stay within the range unless other factors allow them to go outside the guidelines. Our Philadelphia federal defense attorneys can assert any mitigating factors while downplaying aggravating factors to help you at sentencing.

Reducing an Unlawful or Unconstitutional Federal Sentence

Sometimes, a federal sentence is just no good. Perhaps the judge made an error and sentenced you way beyond the sentencing guidelines. Or perhaps the judge handed down a sentence that somehow violated your constitutional rights. If you believe there is a reason your sentence is illegal and should be reversed or reduced, our Philadelphia federal crimes defense attorneys can help.

We can file a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate, set aside, or correct an unlawful or unconstitutional federal sentence. This type of motion would be appropriate if the court that sentenced you did not have proper jurisdiction over your case. Jurisdiction is often worked out at the outset of a criminal case. However, the issue of jurisdiction may be very complicated at times. It is not unheard of for a case to be entirely resolved and a defendant sentenced before they realize jurisdictional errors.

This motion is also appropriate if a sentence was outside the designated sentencing guidelines. As stated above, sentencing guidelines allow judges to sentence defendants according to a specific range. A judge can sentence you to the higher or lower end of that range as they see fit. If they wish to sentence you beyond the maximum range, there must be a good reason or law that permits it. If no such reason or law exists, we can move to have your sentence reduced.

There may be a variety of collateral attacks on your sentence permitted under this motion. For example, if you believe your counsel at your trial was ineffective and failed to mitigate your final sentence, you can file a § 2255 motion. As long as nothing on the record definitively states you are not entitled to relief, the court will entertain your motion and hold a hearing. Generally, you have one year after your sentencing to file this motion. Our Philadelphia federal crimes defense lawyers can help you navigate this process.

Filing a Writ of Habeas Corpus to Challenge Your Federal Sentence

Similar to a § 2255 motion, we can file a writ of habeas corpus to challenge the legality of your incarceration. Writs of habeas corpus, established under 28 U.S.C. § 2241, is a significantly important rule within our Constitution. The rule allows incarcerated prisoners to be brought before a court to challenge their imprisonment. The reasoning for the writ might vary, but many prisoners file this writ because they believe their incarceration is against the Constitution or some other law.

While anybody can file a writ of habeas corpus, you must meet specific conditions. These writs may only be filed if you are already incarcerated. A writ of habeas corpus cannot be used to preemptively challenge a sentence you have not yet started serving. If you are held in state custody, you must exhaust all state remedies before filing this writ. However, as a federal defendant, this rule may not apply in your circumstance.

Writs of habeas corpus are an important aspect of the very foundation of the American legal system and are taken very seriously by courts. If successful, we can have your sentence reduced or even vacated if it is truly unlawful. Contact our Philadelphia federal crimes defense attorneys if you wish to challenge the validity of your federal incarceration.

Philadelphia Defense Attorney Fighting for Sentence Reductions

If you need help negotiating a reduced sentence, you should contact an experienced felony criminal defense attorney. Call the Law Offices of Lloyd Long right away at (215) 302-0171, and we can conduct a free case review. We proudly serve clients throughout the Philadelphia metropolitan area and will keep your information confidential.