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As discussed in the class, taught by Joe King and Jeff Zimmerman, sentencing and mitigation is a critical part of federal criminal practice, as more than 95% of federal felony cases resolve with guilty pleas. The course uses Paul Manafort’s sentencings as a vehicle to understanding the sentencing guidelines, discussing variances, and preparing sentencing memoranda—often the most important pleading submitted in a federal case.

The Importance of a Sentencing Memo in Federal Criminal Cases

The sentencing memo not only presents legal argument regarding application of the advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines, but often will be the primary method for the presentation of mitigation. This is frequently undervalued and makes a significant difference –– as it did for Manafort––in the sentence a defendant receives. Mitigating factors may explain, in whole or in part, the conduct and should be considered in fashioning a fair resolution and/or sentence.

Influence of Mitigating Factors in Federal Sentencing

Mitigating factors can include lack of prior record, work and social history, family, contributions to the community and public service, military service (including PTSD and TBI), substance abuse and/or mental health issues, childhood trauma, immaturity and/or peer pressure, financial pressure, or even heat of passion. Mitigating factors can also be presented to prosecutors prior to and during plea negotiations and probation officers that prepare pre-sentence reports (PSRs) that are filed with the court.

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