Involuntary manslaughter sentencing guidelines

Updated March 23, 2017

When it comes to sentencing for crimes, the law can provide a maximum sentence, a minimum or a range. A sentencing scheme designed as a range is said to be indiscriminate, and the judge is at his own discretion within the parameters of the law. To assist his determination, and help maintain impartiality, sentencing guidelines can provide more specific sentences for variations of conditions of a crime.

Involuntary Manslaughter

The taking of someone else's life unintentionally (without malice) through an act of negligence or recklessness, or as a result of an act that is itself a misdemeanour or minor felony, is called involuntary manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. It is a lesser crime than murder and is often used in exchange for a guilty plea, or when the unintentional nature of the death is patently obvious. On the other hand, the charge of manslaughter carries culpability for the death, even if it was unintentional. If you rob a store and someone has a heart attack and dies out of fright, you could guilty of involuntary manslaughter, since your robbery likely caused their death. Or, if you drive drunk and accidentally kill somebody, you are also guilty of a form of involuntary manslaughter often called vehicular manslaughter, since you did not set out to kill, but did so out of negligence.

Federal Sentencing

The statutory sentence for involuntary manslaughter at the federal level only relates to an act committed on a vessel on the high seas, or on a U.S. territory, pursuant to the special federal jurisdiction in these instances. The prison sentence in any of these situations is not to exceed six years. The federal sentencing guidelines, however, are more specific on manslaughter. The base sentence is 12 months unless the crime was committed through an act of reckless conduct, in which case the recommended sentence is 18 months, or with a car or other vehicle, in which case the appropriate sentences is 22 months. If more than one person was killed as a result of the same general act, each death carries its own sentence, as just described, and they can be ordered to be served concurrently (one at a time). The judge, however, is not bound by these figures in the guidelines.

State Sentencing

If the conviction for involuntary manslaughter did not occur in a federal, but in a state court, the federal sentencing guidelines don't apply. State sentencing varies considerably, but the general elements are the same as in the federal courts, though usually a bit more severe. Some states, such as California, use discriminate sentencing, which means sentences are mandated for low, middle, and high severity. The judge only has discretion to choose which level, and must order the sentence proscribed for that level. Involuntary manslaughter carries a sentence of either 24, 36, or 48 months in California, depending on the judge's determination of the severity. New York uses an indiscriminate approach that take into consideration the severity of the crime and prior convictions. Negligent homicide is a Class E felony, but involuntary manslaughter due to recklessness is a Class C felony. Depending on your criminal record, you can get 1.4 to 4 years for the Class E crime, or 0 to 15 years for the Class C.

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About the Author

Joseph Nicholson is an independent analyst whose publishing achievements include a cover feature for "Futures Magazine" and a recurring column in the monthly newsletter of a private mint. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Florida and is currently attending law school in San Francisco.