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Balancing Justice: Understanding Sentencing Guidelines and Discretion in Criminal Defense Cases

Is There Room for Judicial Discretion in Florida Criminal Defense Cases?

Sentencing for crimes in Florida is subject to a detailed set of guidelines laid out in state law. While state statutes and the calculations within these guidelines provide information about the minimum and maximum sentences permitted for a conviction, the exact details of a sentence within these limitations are primarily up to the judge’s discretion. Additionally, a judge may be able to go below the minimum sentence if the defense team provides a legitimate reason.

This blog provides some basic information on how Florida judges may determine a sentence. However, it should not be considered legal advice for your case. To learn more about sentencing guidelines and how they can impact your specific situation, contact an experienced Jacksonville criminal defense attorney today.

What Are the Sentencing Guidelines for a Florida Misdemeanor?

Misdemeanors in Florida are split into two categories: first and second degree. A first-degree misdemeanor is a more severe charge and can result in a maximum sentence of a year in county jail and a fine of up to $1000. A second-degree misdemeanor is punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a maximum fine of $500.

Although these are the maximum penalties, the judge has significant leeway to decide on a lower sentence if they deem it appropriate. Some defendants, particularly if they are first-time offenders, may be able to seek alternatives to jail time, such as community service or completion of court-ordered programs.

How Do Florida’s Felony Sentencing Guidelines Work?

Florida’s sentencing guidelines for felony crimes are significantly more complex than for misdemeanors. The state’s statutes outline maximum penalties for the four degrees of felony charges (first, second, third, and life). However, a convicted individual’s actual sentence heavily depends on points calculations described by Rule 3.704 of Florida’s Criminal Punishment Code. The code utilizes a scoresheet that must be completed by the state attorney’s office and presented to the defense counsel and sentencing judge for review. The worksheet adds point values for the following aspects of your charges to determine a total score.

Primary Offense

In addition to a degree, each felony is assigned a criminal offense level from one to ten. The points associated with the levels range from four to 116. More severe offenses have a higher level and are worth a larger points value. For example, homicide is a level ten offense worth 116 points.

Additional Offenses

If you are convicted of additional offenses along with your primary offense, these further offenses will be scored at a fraction of the points value associated with their level. For example, a level three felony is worth 2.4 points as an additional offense, versus 16 points as a primary offense.

Other Circumstances That May Increase Points

The court considers all the details of your case and criminal history to arrive at a final total for your points calculation.

Other factors that could increase your total include, but are not limited to:

  • Victim injury points: If the victim died or sustained injuries due to the crime, extra points will be added based on the severity of the harm inflicted.
  • Prior criminal record: All previous convictions for both misdemeanors and felonies will be reviewed, and a points value will be assigned. While a prior conviction is not scored as highly as the current charges, it can still significantly impact the total, especially if it was a high-level felony.
  • Enhancements: As the final step of the calculations, your total score may be multiplied if the charge involves certain types of criminal activity, such as kidnapping, drug trafficking, or gang violence.

Determining the Sentencing From the Points Total

Once a total is calculated, the judge must translate that number into a sentence. Typically, a score less than 22 will result in a non-prison sentence. However, you may be subject to other penalties, such as probation, house arrest, or time in a county jail.

Scores between 22 and 43 could result in prison time or the penalties listed above. The judge has the latitude to decide what is appropriate in these circumstances. They may even hand down the maximum sentence allowable for the charge if they believe it is fitting. This fact underscores the need for a strong defense team to fight for your rights, even if you have been charged with a lower-level felony.

The lowest permissible prison sentence in months for individuals scoring 44 points and above is calculated by subtracting 28 from the points total and then multiplying that number by 0.75. Remember that this is just a guideline and does not necessarily represent the final sentence. The actual prison sentence handed down by the judge can range from this minimum guideline up to the maximum sentence allowed by statute. Additionally, you may be subject to fines and other penalties.

What is a Downward Departure?

Judges do have the discretion to go below the sentencing guidelines if they believe the circumstances warrant it. This action is known as a downward departure or statutory migration. Judges who choose to grant a downward departure must justify their decision, and the case will face a review to ensure it meets the strict legal standards for this act.

Your defense attorney may apply for a downward departure if you meet one of the following criteria or are in another eligible situation:

  • You agreed to an uncoerced plea bargain.
  • You were too young or otherwise mentally incapable of understanding the consequences of your actions.
  • You were forced to commit the crime under extreme duress.
  • You have a non-addiction-related mental or physical disorder that requires treatment and are willing to receive the necessary treatment.
  • You were attempting to get medical help for an individual experiencing a drug-related overdose at the time of the offense.
  • The victim initiated or provoked the incident.

Several other reasons may also justify a downward departure. Your attorney can evaluate your case and decide whether this option is available. While you may improve your odds of receiving a lighter sentence by seeking strong defense counsel and following your lawyer’s recommendations, the sentencing decision is ultimately in the hands of the judge.

How Can an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Assist You?

Florida’s sentencing guidelines are complicated and confusing for defendants. It’s vital to reach out to a skilled defense lawyer to fully understand the potential penalties you could face. The legal team at Weldon Law Group, PLLC can mount a strong defense on your behalf to help you achieve the best possible outcome in your case. Your future is too precious to risk. Contact our law office today at 904-204-3420 to schedule a free strategy session.