Federal Criminal Sentencing and Sentence Reducers


Federal Sentence Reducers

If you have read our introduction to federal criminal law, you have a basic understanding of how sentencing works in the federal system. While the advisory sentencing guidelines may call for harsh sentences for most offenses, there are a limited number of ways to have reduce a sentence imposed by the court. 18 USC 3553(a) sets out a number of factors a court must consider in imposing a sentence. Learn more about federal sentence reducers.

Section 3553(a)(1) requires the court to equally consider:

  • the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant;
  • the kinds of sentences available;
  • the kinds of sentence and the sentencing range;
  • any pertinent policy statement issued by the Sentencing Commission;
  • the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct; and
  • the need to provide restitution to any victims of the offense.

Additionally, Section 3553(a)(2) requires the sentence imposed to:

  • reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law and to provide just punishment for the offense;
  • to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct;
  • to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant; and
  • to provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care or other correctional treatment in the most effective manner.

There are a limited number of ways for a sentence to be reduced based on statutory exemptions or through rehabilitation programs. The most significant sentence reducers in the federal system are described below.

(1) Safety Valve under 18 U.S.C. 3553(f)

A “safety valve” is an exception to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. A defendant who meets the criteria is exempt from any statutory minimum sentence of imprisonment and statutory minimum term of supervised release. Safety valves apply to a variety of crimes and offenders, following that the offender meets certain conditions.


  • The defendant does not have more than 1 criminal history point, as determined under the sentencing guidelines;
  • The defendant did not use violence or credible threats of violence or possess a firearm or other dangerous weapon (or induce another participant to do so) in connection with the offense;
  • The offense did not result in death or serious bodily injury to any person;
  • The defendant was not an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others in the offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines and was not engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise, as defined in the Controlled Substances Act; and
  • Not later than the time of the sentencing hearing, the defendant has truthfully provided to the Government all information and evidence the defendant has concerning the offense or offenses that were part of the same course of conduct or of a common scheme or plan.
  • Applies to convictions under 21 U.S.C. Sections 841, 844, 846, 960, or 963.

(2) Substantial Assistance under 18 U.S.C. 3553(e)

The court has the authority to impose a sentence below the level established by statute as a minimum sentence so as to reflect a defendant’s substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed an offense. There is no limit to the reduction of this sentence, based on the court’s evaluation of the offender’s assistance.

Appropriate reasons for reduction determined by the court:

  • The court’s evaluation of the significance and usefulness of the defendant’s assistance, taking into account the government’s evaluation of the assistance rendered;
  • The truthfulness, completeness, and reliability of any information or testimony provided by the defendant;
  • The nature and extent of the defendant’s assistance;
  • Any injury suffered, or any danger or risk of injury to the defendant or his family resulting from his assistance;
  • The timeliness of the defendant’s assistance.

If the defendant provides substantial assistance to the government after his/her sentencing, while the government is investigating or prosecuting another person, the defendant is eligible at the court’s discretion for a reduction of his/her sentence at a level below the minimum sentence established by the statute.

A motion to reduce can be made more than one year after sentencing stating that the defendant’s substantial assistance involved: information not known to the defendant until one year after sentencing, information provided by the defendant within one year of sentencing but was not useful until more than a year later, or information which the defendant did not anticipate to be useful until more than one year after sentencing, was provided to the government after its usefulness was realized.

(3) Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) under 18 U.S.C. § 3621

Drug rehabilitation is a treatment program for eligible defendants who are determined by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) as having a substance abuse problem and are willing to participate in a residential substance abuse treatment program. The Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) is an intensive six-month program. The defendant must have been convicted of a nonviolent offense and have no detainers or INS holds to be eligible for rehabilitation.

After successful completion of the treatment program, the period of custody may be reduced by the BOP by up to one year; the reduction of the sentence is at the discretion of the Director of the BOP.

(4) Good Time Credit under 18 USC 3624

The “good time” reduction encourages and rewards rehabilitation and discourages rule breaking in prisons. Good time reductions are at the discretion of the BOP. A federal prisoner may obtain 54 days of good time credit for every year that they serve.

Eligibility for Good Time Reduction:

  • Defendant is serving a term of imprisonment of more than one year, but less than life.
  • Defendant, as determined by the BOP, has displayed exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations.
  • The BOP considers whether the prisoner is making satisfactory progress toward earning a high school diploma or equivalent degree.
  • The defendant may receive credit, beyond the time served, of up to 54 days, per year, for each year served of the sentence at BOP discretion.

(5) Residential Reentry Centers under 18 U.S.C. § 3624

A defendant may be released from prison to a halfway house up to 12 months prior to sentence expiration date at discretion of BOP and the availability of halfway house facilities.

The release to a halfway house is determined on an individual basis. The time given to the defendant to spend in the halfway house should be of sufficient duration to provide the greatest likelihood of successful reintegration into the community. While in the halfway house, the defendant remains in Federal custody and is monitored 24 hours a day.

Determining whether or not to release a prisoner to a halfway house, the BOP will consider the following before making a decision:

  • The resources of the facility in question;
  • The nature and circumstances of the offense;
  • The history and characteristics of the prisoner;
  • Any statements by the court that imposed the sentence concerning the purposes for which the sentence to imprisonment was determined to be warranted or other recommendations; and,
  • Any pertinent police statement issued by the US Sentencing Commission.

The following prisoners are not eligible for halfway house placement:

  • Those assigned a “Sex Offender” Public Safety Factor (but though those convicted of possession of child pornography are permitted to go to halfway houses).
  • Those assigned a “Deportable Alien” Public Safety Factor.
  • Those requiring in-patient medical, psychological, or psychiatric treatment.
  • Those who refuse to participate in the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program.
  • Those who refuse to participate, withdraw, are expelled, or otherwise fail to meet attendance and examination requirements in a required Drug Abuse Education Course.
  • Those with unresolved pending charges, or detainers, which will likely lead to arrest, conviction, or confinement.
  • Ordinarily, those serving sentences of six months or less.
  • Those who refuse to participate in the Institution Release Preparation Program.
  • Those who pose a significant threat to the community (e.g., prisoners with repeated disciplinary violations that involve violence or escape).
  • Pretrial, holdover, or detained prisoners.

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If you have been charged with a federal offense, contact the attorneys at Varghese Summersett PLLC. Our attorneys include former federal prosecutors and we regularly handle complex federal criminal cases throughout the country. Contact us today at (817) 203-2220.

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About the Author Board Certified Lawyer Benson Varghese

About the Author

Benson Varghese is the managing partner of Varghese Summersett. He is a seasoned attorney, highly esteemed for his comprehensive knowledge and expertise in the field. He has successfully handled thousands of state and federal cases, ranging from misdemeanor driving while intoxicated cases to capital offenses, showcasing his commitment to preserving justice and upholding the rights of his clients. His firm covers criminal defense, personal injury, and family law matters. Benson is also a legal tech entrepreneur. Benson is a go-to authority in the legal community, known for his ability to explain complex legal concepts with clarity and precision. His writings offer a wealth of in-depth legal insights, reflecting his extensive experience and his passion for the law. Not only is Benson an accomplished litigator, but he is also a dedicated advocate for his clients, consistently striving to achieve the best possible outcomes for them. His authorship provides readers with valuable legal advice and an understanding of the complexities of the criminal justice system. CriminalPersonal InjuryFamily Law Contact
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