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General FAQ: Information on the Commission and Sentencing Guidelines in the District

The DC Sentencing and Criminal Code Revision Commission (formerly the Advisory Commission on Sentencing) is an independent agency in the District tasked with advising the DC Council on issues that promote fair and consistent sentencing policy. Since its inception in 1998, the Commission has conducted research on local sentencing practices, developed and implemented the current DC Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines used for the sentencing of felonies in the District, and initiated an examination of the District’s laws in order to recommend revisions to the criminal code. The Commission currently monitors and reports on sentencing under the Guidelines.

The Commission is comprised of twenty members, fifteen of which are voting and five of which are non-voting. These members include judges of the DC Superior Court, representatives from criminal justice agencies, attorneys in private practice, professionals from research and educational institutions and citizens of the District of Columbia. This diverse membership guarantees a variety of perspectives when developing sentencing policy recommendations for the Council.

What is the mission of the DC Sentencing and Criminal Code Revision Commission?

The mission of the DC Sentencing and Criminal Code Revision Commission is to promote fair and consistent sentencing policies. The Commission seeks to:

  • implement, monitor, and support the District’s Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines;
  • increase public understanding of sentencing policies and practices;
  • evaluate the effectiveness of the guidelines system in order to recommend changes based on actual sentencing and corrections practice and research;
  • analyze the District of Columbia’s current criminal code and administration of existing criminal laws; and
  • propose reforms in the criminal code to create a uniform and coherent body of criminal law in the District of Columbia.

What is the difference between the DC Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines and the Federal US Sentencing Guidelines?

The US Sentencing Guidelines govern federal crimes such as mail fraud, treason, or some drug offenses which are violations of federal law and are prosecuted in federal courts. However, the District of Columbia has its own set of laws and rules and its own system of sentencing offenders that commit crimes in the District that violate these local laws. The DC Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines apply to sentencing for these local offenses. The DC Sentencing and Criminal Code Revision Commission does not oversee any sentencing policy concerning the federal sentencing guidelines or federal law, nor does the US Sentencing Commission oversee any sentencing policy concerning the local laws of the District of Columbia. 

Many other jurisdictions, including Maryland and Virginia, have their own sentencing guidelines. These systems are unique to each state’s individual laws. 

What are the DC Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines?

The DC Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines represent a structured sentencing system used by the DC Superior Court to sentence adult felony offenders in the District. This system was created to promote consistency and proportionality in sentencing and give judges guidance on how to impose sentences. The goal is that offenders who commit similar offenses and have similar criminal records are sentenced alike while unique differences among offenses and offenders are also appropriately reflected. 

The Guidelines take into account two important factors in sentencing: offender criminal history and the offense severity of the conviction. These two factors are represented on the Guidelines’ two grids, the Drug Grid that governs drug felonies and the Master Grid that governs all other felonies. An offender’s criminal history score and the offense severity of the crime intersect in one “box” on the grid that displays a recommended sentencing range and sentencing options (prison, probation or a short split sentence). The Guidelines also incorporate statutory enhancements, mandatory minimum provisions and approved departures for sentencing outside of the recommended range. 

Do the DC Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines apply to all offenses?

The Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines apply only to adult felony offenses. Convictions for misdemeanors are not subject to the Guidelines. 

Does the judge have to follow the DC Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines?

The Guidelines in the District are voluntary. Judges are not required to follow them. A judge can impose any legal sentence permitted under the law for a particular crime. This also means that a legal sentence cannot be appealed based on whether or not the judge complies with the Guidelines or the procedures recommended in the Guidelines Manual. Nevertheless, since the implementation of the Guidelines, judicial compliance has been high—consistently above 88 percent. 

How do the DC Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines work?

The Guidelines combine two important sentencing factors to determine a recommended sentence: the severity of the offense and the criminal history of the offender. For a comprehensive discussion of calculating a compliant sentence under the Guidelines, please refer to the Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines Manual.

Finding the Right Box: To find the suggested sentencing range under the Guidelines, one should first locate the offense severity group for the offense of conviction along the vertical axis on the Drug Grid (Groups 1 - 3), which governs drug felonies, or on the Master Grid (Groups 1 - 9), which governs all other felonies. A complete list of felony offenses and their offense severity groups can be found in the Guidelines Manual under Appendix C and C-I. 

Next, one should determine the criminal history score using the set of rules set forth in the Guidelines for calculating criminal history. The criminal history score rules depend primarily on the type, number and severity of prior convictions/adjudications as well as the length of time between the imposition or the expiration of the defendant’s last sentence and the commission of the current offense. Once calculated, the criminal history score can be located in one of the ranges along the horizontal axis of either the Drug Grid or the Master Grid. The scores can vary from 0 to ½ points in Column A for someone with little or no prior record to 6 or more points in Column E for someone with a more extensive or violent criminal history. 

The intersection of the row and column for these two factors will lead to a box containing the recommended range for sentencing under the Guidelines. 

Sentencing Options: Every box contains a prison sentence range. A white box indicates that a prison sentence is the only option. A dark gray box indicates that either prison or a short split sentence (execution of sentence suspended (ESS) all but six months or less, but not all of the sentence) may be imposed. A light gray box indicates that prison, short split or straight probation (ESS all) may be imposed. 

Adjusting the Box and Departures: When imposing a sentence in the appropriate box, there are additional factors that may alter the sentencing options available, such as mandatory minimums (where a minimum term of imprisonment must be imposed) and statutory enhancements (which increases the maximum sentence if certain factors are present). Also, if there is a substantial and compelling reason to deviate from the recommended range, the Guidelines incorporates departure principles for aggravating and mitigating circumstances. 

Multiple Counts of Conviction: Rules for imposing sentences either consecutively or concurrently for cases involving multiple convictions also apply within the Guidelines structure. Imposing sentences consecutively means that the sentences would be served separately, one after the other. Imposing sentences concurrently means that the sentences would be served at the same time with the longest sentence representing the maximum time to be served.

Where can I find the definitions of the terms used in the DC Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines?

A glossary of terms can be found on the Commission’s website at http://sentencing.dc.gov or in Chapter 7 of the Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines Manual. 

Can the Commission change the laws or punishments for a crime or modify a sentence?

While the Commission provides recommendations to the DC Council on sentencing policy and practices, it does not have the authority to make or change the current law. This responsibility belongs to the Council. The Commission also cannot change the sentence in an individual case or give legal advice.

How often are the DC Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines updated?

The Commission releases a new Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines Manual annually. All changes to the Guidelines are documented in Appendix J of the Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines Manual and also detailed in the Commission’s Annual Report issued at the end of April. 

What kinds of sentencing policies have the Commission recommended?

The Commission began advising the DC Council on sentencing policy in 1998 as the Advisory Commission on Sentencing. Since then, the Commission has been involved in the following projects:

  • Examined and published a study of sentencing practices from 1993 to 1998
  • Drafted recommendations that contributed to the Sentencing Reform Act of 2000
  • Researched structured sentencing systems nationally and developed the Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines for the District
  • Currently monitors and reports on the implementation of the Guidelines, including the publishing of statistical information, issues papers, annual reports and changes to the Guidelines
  • Currently researches potential revisions to the District’s criminal code

Does the Commission have regular meetings?

The Commission generally meets on the third Tuesday of each month at 5 pm. Notice of Commission meetings is published on its website (http://sentencing.dc.gov) and in the DC Register. Meetings are open to the public and the agendas are provided in advance of each meeting with minutes for previous meetings also available on the Commission’s website.

Where can I get more information on the DC Sentencing and Criminal Code Revision Commission or the DC Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines?

The Commission’s website at http://sentencing.dc.gov contains a number of resources about the Guidelines and information on the Commission, including historical information, sentencing reports, issues papers, training materials, meeting information, membership listings and agency contacts. The website also includes a digital version of the DC Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines Manual.

In addition, the Commission staff is available to answer any questions from the public regarding the Guidelines. While information provided by the Commission is offered to assist in understanding and applying the Sentencing Guidelines, it is not binding on the Commission, the Courts, or parties in any case. To contact the Commission or its staff regarding inquiries or training opportunities, please call (202) 727-8822 or email at sccrc@dc.gov