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Criminal History

The 6 Criminal History Categories (CHC) and How They Impact Sentencing

If you are convicted of a federal crime, the next stage of your case is the sentencing phase, during which the judge will weigh your offense on various factors established by the United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines. 

One key factor a judge must consider in determining appropriate sentencing is prior convictions (i.e., criminal history). The Federal Sentencing Guidelines have created six Criminal History Categories (CHC) that consider the severity and recency of prior convictions. 

Federal Criminal History Categories
Six federal criminal history categories can significantly impact a defendant's sentence.

Criminal history is pivotal in determining an offender's sentencing range under the guidelines. Courts calculate a criminal history score for each offender by assigning one, two, or three points to any qualifying prior sentences.

In addition, two more points are added if the offender committed the instant federal offense while still serving a sentence in another case, for example, while on probation or parole. These additional points are commonly referred to as “status points.”

Simply put, the number and nature of a federal offender's prior convictions are crucial in deciding a federal sentence. Congress codified this approach with the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (SRA).

In addition to requiring federal criminal courts to consider the defendant's history and characteristics when imposing a sentence, the SRA has numerous provisions directing the United States Sentencing Commission to account for an offender's criminal history when establishing the federal sentencing guidelines.

Accordingly, the Guidelines Manual provides detailed criminal history calculations for determining an offender's sentencing range. Knowing these categories and how they apply to sentencing can help give a more precise assessment of what type of sentence to expect.

Four main factors in sentencing are the severity of the crimes, the defendant's criminal history, mandatory minimums, and the purpose of the sentence. 

What are Criminal History Categories?

The United States Sentencing Commission has established the Criminal History Categories to ensure that an individual's criminal behavior is considered systematically during sentencing. 

The CHCs range from I (the lowest) to VI (the highest), with each category corresponding to a range of criminal history points assigned based on the defendant's prior convictions. 

This system ensures uniformity and fairness in sentencing by considering the nature and extent of the defendant's criminal background. Here's a breakdown of how criminal history points are allocated and how they contribute to determining an individual's CHC:

  • Three points are assigned for each prior sentence of imprisonment exceeding one year and one month.
  • Two points are given for each prior sentence of imprisonment of at least sixty days but not more than thirteen months.
  • One point is allocated for each prior sentence of less than sixty days or non-imprisonment sentences (e.g., probation, fines) involving at least one criminal conviction.

Additional points may be added for crimes committed while the defendant was under a criminal justice sentence (like probation or parole) or if the current offense was committed within two years of release from imprisonment. 

Criminal History Categories

There's also a cap on the number of points that can be counted from specific prior sentences to prevent disproportionate impact from multiple minor convictions. 

The cumulative points are then added to determine which of the 6 CHCs should apply to your case in determining sentencing. The more points are assigned, the higher the category.

Category I: Minimal Prior Criminal Conduct

Category I is reserved for defendants with no prior convictions or minimal criminal history. Typically, individuals in this category have accumulated zero or one point under the sentencing guidelines.

Sentences for those in Category I tend to be more lenient on the assumption that individuals with minimal or no previous involvement in criminal activities pose a lower risk of reoffending.

Category II: Low-Level Prior Criminal Conduct

Individuals in Category II have a slightly more significant criminal history, usually accumulating two or three points under the sentencing guidelines. This category often includes defendants who have committed minor offenses in the past or whose previous convictions are not considered severe. 

Sentences for Category II defendants may be more severe than those in Category I but still reflect a relatively low criminal history level.

Category III: Moderate Prior Criminal Conduct

Category III is designated for individuals with moderate prior criminal conduct, typically accumulating four to six points. Defendants in this category may have a history of more serious offenses or a larger number of minor crimes.

The sentencing guidelines recommend stiffer penalties for Category III defendants, recognizing a higher risk of recidivism based on their more substantial criminal background.

Category IV: Serious Prior Criminal Conduct

Defendants with a serious criminal history fall into Category IV, which usually involves accumulating seven to nine points.

Category IV: Serious Prior Criminal Conduct

This category indicates a significant risk of reoffending, as it encompasses individuals with multiple prior convictions, including potentially violent or felony offenses, which typically result in longer sentences.

Category V: Very Serious Prior Criminal Conduct

Category V is reserved for individuals with a severe criminal history, typically involving ten to twelve points. Defendants in this category often have a lengthy record of criminal behavior, including multiple felony convictions.

The sentencing guidelines prescribe severe penalties for Category V defendants, underscoring their perceived high risk to public safety.

Category VI: Extremely Serious Prior Criminal Conduct

Finally, Category VI represents the highest level of criminal history, reserved for individuals with thirteen or more points. This category includes defendants with extensive criminal records, often involving violent crimes or high-level felonies.

Sentences for Category VI defendants are more likely than most to receive the maximum recommended sentence for their offense.

What is the Impact of CHCs on Sentencing Guidelines?

The primary purpose of CHCs is to guide judges in determining appropriate sentences within the federal sentencing guidelines. However, prior criminal history is only one factor in determining sentencing, and other mitigating factors may exist. 

If you fall into one of the higher CHC categories, a skilled federal criminal defense attorney can focus on some of the more apparent mitigating factors during the sentencing phase, potentially resulting in a less severe sentence.

Federal law provides exceptions in certain cases where the judge may impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum. One of the most common is the “safety valve” exception.

For more information, contact our federal criminal defense lawyers at Eisner Gorin LLP, based in Los Angeles, California.

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