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History of the District of Columbia Sentencing

The Revitalization Act, the Truth in Sentencing Commission and Creation of the Advisory Commission on Sentencing (1997 - 1998) 

In 1997, Congress enacted the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997 (the “Revitalization Act”). This influential legislation was responsible for several important changes to the criminal justice system in the District of Columbia. These changes included closing the Lorton Correctional Complex, creating the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), and transferring the housing of felony offenders from the D.C. Department of Corrections to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The Revitalization Act also created the Truth in Sentencing Commission (the “TIS Commission”), which was directed to develop recommendations to the Council of the District of Columbia on amendments to the District of Columbia Code regarding sentences imposed for felonies committed on or after August 5, 2000. In addition, with respect to certain violent felonies enumerated in subsection (h) of section 11212, the Revitalization Act eliminated parole, substituted determinate sentencing, and required that the offender serve eighty-five percent of any prison term imposed, followed by an adequate period of supervised release. Thus, for all “subsection (h)” felonies, the sentencing system was converted from an indeterminate system with a minimum and maximum prison term and parole, to a determinate sentencing system where the offender is required to serve at least eighty-five percent of a single prison term imposed. 

For all felonies, the TIS Commission had to ensure that: (1) the sentence would reflect the seriousness of the offense and the criminal history of the offender as well as provide for just punishment and deterrence and necessary educational and vocational training, medical care, and other correctional treatment for offenders; (2) good time credit would be calculated pursuant to 3624 of Title 18 of the United States Code; and (3) an “adequate period of supervision” would follow release from imprisonment. The Revitalization Act also required that the TIS Commission’s recommendations maximize the effectiveness of drug court programs in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Any sentencing changes had to be neutral as to race, sex, marital status, ethnic origin, religious affiliation, national origin, creed, and sexual orientation. The TIS Commission did not have the authority to recommend the death penalty for any offense nor could it recommend that an established mandatory minimum be reduced or eliminated. 

The TIS Commission issued its formal recommendations to the Council for the District of Columbia on February 1, 1998. Limiting its recommendations to those that were necessary to comply with the Revitalization Act, the TIS Commission left to the Council’s authority the development of more specific changes to sentencing policy in the District of Columbia. The recommendations proposed by the TIS Commission were ultimately adopted by the Council as the Truth in Sentencing Amendment Act of 1998, effective October 10, 1998. (D.C. Law 12-165; D.C. Code § 24-403.01). The TIS Commission submitted an additional Comments and Suggestions Report that presented outstanding issues for the Council’s consideration. In addition to recommending that the Council create an entity to advise and assist on sentencing policy, the TIS Commission suggested the Council address the appropriate terms of supervised release, the availability of intermediate sanctions, the treatment of life sentences in a determinate sentencing system, the viability of the Youth Rehabilitation Act sentencing alternatives, whether to extend determinate sentencing to all felonies and/or misdemeanors, and the advisability of structured sentencing in the District. 

In response to the TIS Commission’s recommendations, the Council created the District of Columbia Advisory Commission on Sentencing (the “Commission”) and directed it to make recommendations on the issues left open by the Revitalization Act and the TIS Commission’s recommendations. (Advisory Commission on Sentencing Establishment Act of 1998, D.C. Law 12-167, D.C. Code § 3-101 et seq.). This included the responsibility to: 

  • Ensure that for all felonies, the sentence imposed on an offender (1) reflect the seriousness of the offense and the offender’s criminal history; (2) provide for just punishment; (3) afford adequate deterrence to any offender; and (4) provide the offender with needed educational or vocational training, medical care and other correctional treatment; 

  • Provide for the use of intermediate sanctions in appropriate cases; 

  • Conduct an annual review of sentencing data, policies, and practices in the District of Columbia; and 

  • Make such other recommendations appropriate to enhance the fairness and effectiveness of criminal sentencing policies and practices in the District of Columbia. 

The legislation required the Commission to present two reports, the first completed by September 30, 1999 on criminal sentencing practices in the District of Columbia and the second completed by April 5, 2000 that addressed a variety of additional sentencing policy issues for the District. 

The Sentencing Reform Amendment Act of 2000 and the Development of Sentencing Guidelines in the District of Columbia (1998 - 2004) 

The Commission conducted extensive research on sentencing practices in the District in preparation of submissions to the Council pursuant to its mandate. On September 30, 1999, the Commission issued Criminal Sentencing Practices in the District of Columbia 1993-1998. This study reported on length of sentences imposed and served, the proportion of offenders released upon their first eligibility date, and an assessment of the impact on sentence length and sentence disparities likely to result from the enactment of the Truth in Sentencing Amendment Act of 1998. 

In addition to this comprehensive study of criminal sentencing practices, the Council had requested that the Commission address sentencing and release practices in the District, the applicability of the new truth-in-sentencing structure for offenses other than the “subsection (h)” felonies mandated by the Revitalization Act, recommendations for appropriate limits and conditions for supervise release and any projected impact on the incarcerated populations and supervised released populations if the Commission’s recommendations were implemented. The report was also to discuss an appropriate length of a sentence in a determinate sentencing structure for all former “life” offenses, an assessment of currently available intermediate sanctions, comprehensive recommendations for other intermediate sanctions including alternatives to incarceration, and recommendations for concurrent and consecutive sentencing. Any recommendations for the implementation of sentencing guidelines were to specify under what circumstances to impose probation, imprisonment and a fine and the length and amount of each. Recommendations were to provide for the application of intermediate sanctions in appropriate cases and include provisions for appeal rights considered appropriate or constitutionally required. 

In response to the Council’s inquiries, on April 5, 2000, the Commission issued a report entitled Sentence Recommendations to the Council of the District of Columbia. The report included several important recommendations, the most prominent being the abolition of parole and the switch from indeterminate to determinate sentencing for all felony offenses, including supervised release following incarceration. The 2000 report also suggested that the District consider adopting some form of structured sentencing as a way to promote fairness under the new determinate sentencing system. The Council adopted these recommendations in the Sentencing Reform Amendment Act of 2000 (D.C. Law 13-302) which had the following effect: 

  • Shifted the sentencing system in the District from an indeterminate system to a determinate system; 

  • Abolished parole and established supervised release to follow an offender’s release from prison; 

  • Adjusted penalties for felony offenses that had formerly carried a life sentence 

  • Clarified the imposition of good time credit which is calculated according to federal law; 

  • Modified the Youth Rehabilitation Act; and 

  • Modified the rules for custody of felony probationers. 

The Sentencing Reform Act also directed the Commission to survey structured sentencing systems around the country and recommend the type of structured system, if any, that would best serve the needs of the District’s criminal justice system. The Commission was also required to continue reporting on the implementation of determinate sentencing in the District. 

In 2003, the Commission recommended the adoption of voluntary sentencing guidelines for the District of Columbia. The following year, the Council recognized the voluntary guidelines, enacting the Advisory Commission on Sentencing Structured Sentencing System Pilot Program Amendment Act of 2004 and the Commission was directed to assist the Superior Court with implementation of the guidelines as a pilot program. (D.C. Law 15-190). In addition, this legislation made the Commission a permanent agency, renaming it the District of Columbia Sentencing Commission. 

On June 14, 2004, the District of Columbia Superior Court began imposing sentences under the Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines for all felony offenses. 

Revision to the Criminal Code and Continued Monitoring of Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines (2004 - 2006) 

Following the creation of the Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines, the Commission continued to monitor sentencing practices in the District and report on issues regarding implementation. In its annual report to the Council in 2006, the Commission discussed the experience to date under the Guidelines and identified modifications it had made based on that experience. 

Also, at this time the Council began to express concern about confusing and outdated language and overlapping provisions in the D.C. Code that were potentially affecting fairness in sentencing practices. After research and input from the public, in 2006, the Council directed the Commission, through the Advisory Commission on Sentencing Act of 2006, to examine the criminal code and make comprehensive recommendations that provide for a uniform and coherent body of law. (D.C. Law 16-126; D.C. Code § 3-101, et seq.). This legislation also expanded the membership of the Commission and again changed its name to the District of Columbia Sentencing and 

Criminal Code Revision Commission. Pursuant to its mandate, the Commission will: 

  • Examine the District’s criminal statutes to ensure clear and consistent language; 

  • Assist in organizing existing statutes in a logical order; 

  • Assess the proportionality of fines and penalties; 

  • Propose a rational classification system for misdemeanor statutes; 

  • Identify and recommend the appropriate language for any common law crimes that should be codified; 

  • Identify criminal statutes that have been held unconstitutional; 

  • Propose any additional amendments believed to be necessary; and 

  • Enable the adoption of Title 22 (Criminal Offenses and Penalties) as an enacted title of the District of Columbia Official Code. 

The Council directed the Commission to submit its recommendations in the form of reports with draft legislation as appropriate. The Commission continues its efforts to complete this project by September 30, 2012. 

District of Columbia Sentencing and Criminal Code Revision Commission: (2006 - 2016) 

In 2006, the Council expanded the Commission’s mandate to include making recommendations to update and reform the District’s criminal code.  In January of 2011, the Commission submitted its first piece of recommended legislation concerning the revision of the criminal code; the Fine Proportionality Act of 2011. The Act restructured criminal fines so that they became proportional to the maximum statutory penalty for the offense.  In 2013, the Criminal Code Revision project was fully staffed.  The project focused on preparing comprehensive Criminal Code Revision (CCR) recommendations for the Council and the Mayor. 

At the same time, the Commission continued to expand on its ability to monitor and report on the Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines and sentencing practices in the District of Columbia.  The Commission’s own data system, GRID, was created in 2013.  The GRID system allows the Commission to automatically calculate initial Guidelines compliance for every felony sentencing imposed in D.C. Superior Court.   

The Commission also continued to evaluate and update the Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines.  This included adding a new row to the Drug Grid in 2011. 

2016 to Present Current Work of the Commission / Commission Split from the Criminal Code Revision Commission: (2016 - Present) 

The Commission’s Criminal Code Revision mandate concluded on September 30, 2016, when the project was transferred to a new agency called Criminal Code Revision Commission (CCRC).  All of the Commission’s CCR duties, staff, and work were transferred to the CCRC. The Commission continued to focus on sentencing research and policy. It also continued to support the application of the Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines in the D.C. Superior Court.   

In 2017, the Commission undertook a comprehensive evaluation of the Guidelines to analyze how effectively the Guidelines were operating and to identify any areas where improvement may be needed. The final evaluation was published in March 2017. 

An Evaluation of the D.C. Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines” In 2018, the Commission hired The Moss Group to develop and moderate a series of focus groups with members of primary user groups of the Voluntary D.C. Sentencing Guidelines (the Guidelines): the Judiciary, United States Attorney’s Office (USAO), Public Defender Service (PDS), Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), and Criminal Justice Act (CJA) Attorneys (collectively, "the agencies"). The focus of this project was to determine how the agencies perceive the Guidelines in terms of their structure and application, and to develop a report identifying components of the Guidelines’ structure and application that may warrant further evaluation by the Commission.  

2018 Focus Group Report 

In 2018, the Commission made the important decision to re-rank the District’s most common felony offense: Unlawful Possession of a Firearm by a person with a Prior Felony (D.C. Code § 22-4503(a)(1)). The offense, formerly ranked in Master Group 7, is now ranked in Master Group 8. This new ranking is reflected in the 2018 Guidelines Manual.  

In 2019, the Commission made some changes to the Guidelines: 

In 2020, The Commission partnered with the Metropolitan Police Department to expand its data system to track felony cases starting from arrest through final disposition and sentencing. 

In 2021, the Commission made two substantive changes to the Guidelines to combat sentencing issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic which were: 

These changes allow for sentencing judges to take into consideration unintended delays in the resolution of a matter. 

For the first time, in 2021, the Commission successfully used its GRID system to reply to data requests with joint arrest and sentencing data. This was made possible due to GRID system enhancements completed in 2020 and 2021. These brought in and allowed the system to consume MPD arrest data. 

The Commission continues to pursue activities that further its mission to implement, monitor, and support the District’s Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines and promote fair and consistent sentencing policies. Further, the Commission endeavors to increase public understanding of sentencing policies and practices, and evaluate the effectiveness of the guidelines system in order to recommend changes based on actual sentencing and corrections practices and research. The public is encouraged to contact the Commission with any inquiries about the guidelines or questions concerning training opportunities.