When a person is convicted of a federal crime, a judge determines the person's sentence based on the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The guidelines can be quite strict, especially for white collar crimes, and they do not give a sentencing judge much discretion about what type of sentence a defendant should receive.
Under certain circumstances, however, a judge can give a convicted person what is called a downward departure from the guidelines. A downward departure is a reduced sentence that is lower than what is called for by the sentencing guidelines. These reduced sentences are possible after a defense attorney requests them from the sentencing judge and offers some justification for the reduced sentence.
There are quite a few reasons that justify a downward departure. Some examples of reasons that justify a downward departure include situations in which a defendant has cooperated with authorities, the sentence would be unduly harsh under the circumstances, or when a defendant's past good behavior warrants a reduced sentence.
Recently, a former attorney and former elected official who pleaded guilty to mortgage fraud received a sentence that was lower than what the sentencing guidelines called for. Before being implicated in a mortgage fraud conspiracy, the defendant worked as a councilman in the Borough of Bellevue and supervisor of Pine Township.
The judge ruled that his fraudulent acts caused more than $1 million in losses to lenders and borrowers, and ordered him to pay nearly $625,000 in restitution. Although the sentencing guidelines called for a prison term of 41 to 51 months, the judge gave the defendant a sentence of 27 months in prison because of his past public service.
Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Former public official sentenced for mortgage fraud," Rich Lord, 5/19/2011