Safety Valve

Codified at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), this provision allows the court to sentence a defendant without regard to an otherwise applicable mandatory minimum term of imprisonment for certain types of drug-trafficking offenses if the defendant satisfies the five criteria in the statute. A corresponding guidelines provision is USSG §5C1.2. In addition, §2D1.1(b)(17) provides for a 2-level decrease in the offense level for defendants who satisfy the safety valve criteria, regardless whether they are subject to a mandatory minimum.

Sentencing Commission

An independent agency in the judicial branch of government created by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. Congress enacted the SRA in response to widespread disparity in federal sentencing, ushering in a new era of federal sentencing through the creation of the Commission and the promulgation of federal sentencing guidelines. Several states also have sentencing commissions that promulgate sentencing guidelines that apply to their state’s criminal offenses.

Sentencing Table

The table displays imprisonment ranges, stated in months, that apply to a case after the court as determined the offense severity level and the criminal history category of the defendant. The table is found at Chapter Five, Part A of the Guidelines Manual.

Sentencing Options

The choices that the court has once the court has properly determined the defendant’s sentencing range in the Sentencing Table. Depending on the Zone on the table in which a defendant’s range falls, sentencing options include probation (with or without a condition of home detention or community confinement), a split sentence, or a term of imprisonment. The Guidelines Manual addresses sentencing options at Chapter Five, Part F.

Sentencing Procedures

The procedural rules governing sentencing hearings and preparation leading up to it. Rules are found in the Guidelines Manual at Chapter Six. Sentencing procedures are also governed by statute and at Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.

Specific Offense Characteristic

Aggravating or mitigating factors in the guidelines in Chapter Two that, provided the court finds by a preponderance of evidence that they exist, either increase or decrease the offense severity level.

Split Sentence

A sentence of imprisonment that includes a term of supervised release with a condition of community confinement or home detention as a substitute for a portion of the guideline minimum (§5C1.1(c)(2), (d)(2)). Split sentences are sentencing options in Zones B and C of the Sentencing Table.

Statement of Reasons (“SOR”)

Court document (AO Form 245(b)), filed under seal, that provides certain details about the sentence and the reasons the court imposed it. It contains various check boxes and spaces for judges to explain the reasons for imposing the sentence in the case, including the court’s decision to impose a sentence outside of the applicable guideline range. The Sentencing Commission collects this form as one of five sentencing documents that courts must send within 30 days of the entry of judgment.

Supervised Release

A period of court supervision that often follows an offender’s service of a federal prison sentence. The primary purpose of supervised release is not to punish, but instead to facilitate the defendant’s reentry into the community. The court sets conditions of supervised release at the time of sentencing but may modify them later, or in the case of a violation, may revoke a defendant’s term of supervised release and return the defendant to prison to serve additional time.


Monitoring of an offender by a pretrial services officer or probation officer, whether while awaiting trial or sentencing, or after serving a prison sentence. An offender on probation or parole is also under supervision. Violation of the conditions of supervision can lead to a revocation of the supervision and incarceration of the offender.

Supervising Officer

An officer of the court responsible for monitoring an offender or an accused person’s behavior, generally for a set period of time. In the federal system, the supervision officer is a pretrial services officer or probation officer.

Substantial Assistance

The act of assisting the government in its investigation and/or prosecution of another individual or an organization. The government has the option of filing a motion for a reduced sentence if it finds the defendant substantially assisted the government. A federal statute, 18 U.S.C. §3553(e), provides that a court may sentence a defendant below a mandatory minimum based on a defendant’s substantial assistance, and USSG §5K1.1 provides that a court may sentence below the minimum of the guideline range based on a defendant’s substantial assistance even if no statutory mandatory minimum applies. Both the statute and guideline require the government to file a motion requesting a downward departure before a court may depart.