Federal guidelines, adopted in 1987 and altered nearly every year since, turn criminal sentencing into an intricate process that combines mathematics with a legal tug-of-war.
The home-decorating entrepreneur and her former stockbroker, Peter Bacanovic, were convicted Friday of lying to investigators about why Stewart sold 3,928 shares of ImClone Systems stock.
Stewart was convicted of four crimes that, under the law, carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. But because of the guidelines, there was never a risk Stewart would serve even close to that much time.
The specific crimes — conspiracy, obstruction of justice and twice making false statements — fall under Level 12, which means a judge could sentence her to 10 to 16 months in prison.
In a Level 12 sentence, at least half must be served in prison. But the judge could allow Stewart to spend the other half confined to her home, probably wearing an ankle bracelet or other electronic monitor.
Then again, federal probation officials or U.S. District Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum could decide that Stewart caused “substantial interference with the administration of justice” by lying about the stock sale.
That would bump the crimes up to Level 15, punishable by up to two years in prison. Anything higher than Level 12 eliminates the chance that Stewart can serve any part of her sentence in home confinement.
“It’s huge for her,” said David Beneman, an expert on the guidelines who practices law in Portland, Maine. “If she is at Level 13 or higher, she’s stuck in prison.”