Sentencing Guidelines – An Overview

A person charged with a felony is going to hear their attorney talk about “sentencing guidelines” and because this often creates a lot of fear and confusion, I thought it would be helpful to offer a brief overview on what exactly sentencing guidelines are and how sentencing works in Michigan.

The first thing to understand is that the number your attorney (or judge, prosecutor, or probation officer) uses when describing sentencing guidelines refers to the range of months that judge must sentence you to for the minimum portion of your sentence. The maximum is set by the statute and your attorney doesn’t have much say at all what happens on the back end of a sentence. A defendant is at the mercy of the Department of Corrections and the parole board. However, most inmates are paroled as soon they are eligible to it is important to work hard to get the minimum number (the sentencing guidelines range) down to the lowest amount possible.

For example, if a particular person’s sentencing guidelines are 51-80 months and the person is convicted of a 15 year felony, the maximum sentence is 15 years and the minimum part will be between 51-80 months. The judge has the discretion to sentence the defendant to some term between 51-80 months before the defendant is eligible for parole. So the final sentence may be 60 months to 180 months or 5-15 years.

People often get confused when they hear their attorney say the guidelines are 10-23 months on a ten year felony and think that the person will be out in 23 months at the latest. That is NOT the case. The 23 months is the maximum for the minimum portion of the sentence. The judge could set the minimum as low as 10 months or as high as 23 but it will be a set number within that range.

Some crimes have mandatory minimum terms and some require life in prison. There is another tricky category that sets the penalty at “life of any term of years.” In those cases, the judge can set the maximum wherever she feels fit; often a chilling proposition. In many cases, however, there is a plea agreement to a lesser charge that removes this possibility. I have also had clients that are convicted of a crime that has “life or any term of years” get a maximum sentence of only 5 years, so it isn’t necessarily a “death sentence.”

In a future blog, I will discuss the factors that go into determining a person’s sentencing guideline range.