For every felony charge in the State of Florida, a mathematical value is assigned to the offense. Obviously, the more serious the charge, the higher the value.
Factor in enhancements such as the degree of victim injury (if applicable), your prior offenses (which all have mathematical values as well), further enhancements for drug trafficking, possession of a firearm, or gang activity, and you have your "score." Your score will reveal the bottom of your sentencing guidelines. This is the lowest sentence the court can impose if you are found guilty absent a downward departure. The top of the guidelines would be the statutory maximum for the charge.
The Florida Criminal Punishment Code prescribes the methodology by which a sentence is computed. Prosecutors fill out forms known as "scoresheets" to determine the minimum sentence for an accused person.
Your sentencing guidelines are very important because that number may determine the plea offer that the prosecutor will make. It is important that your defense attorney have a thorough understanding of the sentencing guidelines to make sure that you have been scored correctly.
Many offenses do not "score state prison." This means that the offense level is so low, that without enhancements or prior offenses, the number at the bottom of the guidelines will not equal a state prison sentence. In this instance, any "non-state prison" sentence, such as county jail, community control, probation, or even a suspended sentence, is acceptable.
If you are on probation and you pick up a new arrest, you will be scored both for the offense for which you are on probation and the new offense. This can drastically increase your score, subjecting you to prison time.
Multiple counts of the same offense can also give you an increased guideline score.
Prosecutors may offer pleas that are "below guidelines," meaning that the plea offer is less than the sentence recommended at the bottom of the guidelines.
For instance, if you have no priors and are charged with one count of burglary of an unoccupied dwelling, you will score out to 21 months state prison at the bottom of your guidelines, with a maximum of 15 years state prison at the top. If your attorney negotiates a plea to probation, that would be a "below guidelines" sentence.
Judges can also sentence below the guidelines if they make written findings that the sentence recommended by the criminal scoresheet is not in the best interest of justice and that the accused is not such a danger to the community that prison time is required.
As a former Miami-Dade prosecutor, I have filled out more scoresheets than I could possibly ever count. To say that I have completed over a thousand scoresheets would be an understatement.
If charged with a serious offense (remember, many lesser felonies do not score out to prison time at the bottom of the guidelines), it is crucial that your attorney understand the Florida Criminal Punishment Code.
Eric Matheny is a former Miami-Dade prosecutor who represents clients charged with criminal offenses in Miami-Dade County and Broward County.