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Guideline FAQ

What are the D.C. Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines?


The D.C. Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines (the Guidelines) represent a structured sentencing system used by the D.C. Superior Court judges 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 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 Guidelines sentencing range and sentencing options (prison, probation or a short split sentence). The Guidelines’ rules also incorporate statutory enhancements, mandatory minimum provisions, and approved departure reasons for sentencing outside of the recommended range.


What is the difference between the D.C. Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines and the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines?


The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines apply to defendant’s being sentenced in U.S. District Court (federal court) for violating federal laws or regulations. The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines were created and are updated by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The District of Columbia has its own set of laws and rules and its own system of sentencing offenders that violate D.C. laws. The D.C. Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines only apply to adult defendants sentenced for violations of District law in D.C. Superior Court. The D.C. Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines were created and are updated by the D.C. Sentencing Commission. The D.C. Sentencing Commission does not oversee any sentencing policy concerning the federal sentencing guidelines or federal law, nor does the U.S. Sentencing Commission oversee any sentencing policy concerning the local laws of the District of Columbia. Many other jurisdictions, including Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania have their own sentencing guidelines. These systems are unique to each state’s individual laws.


Does the Commission provide assistance applying the Sentencing Guidelines?


Yes. The Commission provides information to assist in understanding and applying the Sentencing Guidelines. The Commission strongly encourages practitioners to ask questions regarding the application of the Guidelines. If you have a Guidelines application inquiry, please contact us at (202) 727-8822 or [email protected] The issues raised by the inquiry may also be used to inform subsequent revisions of this Manual. The Commission also provides trainings to individuals or groups who would like to learn more about the Guidelines. Additionally, the Commission has online trainings available at:


It is important to note that assistance regarding the use or application of the Sentencing Guidelines provided by Commission staff is not legal advice. Any information provided to or received from Commission staff when seeking assistance is not confidential. Inquiry responses are not intended or expected to form an attorney-client relationship, may be provided by non-attorneys, are not binding on the court or parties in any case, and do not constitute the official opinion of the Sentencing Commission.


Do the Sentencing Guidelines apply to misdemeanor sentences?


No. The Guidelines only apply to adults being sentenced for felony offenses (offenses where the maximum period of incarceration is a year or more). However, at sentencing in a misdemeanor case, the judge may consider the defendant’s prior criminal record when determining an appropriate sentence.


Do the Guidelines apply to juveniles sentenced in family court?


No, unless the juvenile was convicted as an adult in the Criminal Division of the D.C. Superior Court. The Sentencing Guidelines do not apply to juveniles adjudicated in the Family Division of D.C. Superior Court.


Is a judge required to impose a Guidelines compliant sentence in every felony case sentenced?


No. While the Guidelines apply to all felony sentences, they are completely voluntary. A judge can impose any legal sentence permitted under the law for a particular crime. This means that a legal sentence cannot be appealed based on whether or not the judge complied with the Guidelines or the procedures recommended in the Guidelines Manual. Nevertheless, most sentenced imposed in D.C. Superior Court comply with the Guidelines (over 95% since 2014).


If an offender is being sentenced for an offense with a mandatory minimum (i.e. the statute requires the defendant to serve at least a minimum term in prison), but part the applicable Guidelines range is below the mandatory minimum term, can the defendant be sentenced to less than the mandatory minimum?


No. While the Guidelines are voluntary, applicable mandatory minimums are required to be imposed under the law. The judge must impose at least the mandatory minimum sentence. To be compliant with the Guidelines, the judge should sentence the defendant to a sentence equal or above the mandatory minimum that falls within the Guidelines range.


If a young adult offender is sentenced under the Youth Rehabilitation Act (YRA), do the Sentencing Guidelines apply as they would to any other felony sentence.


Yes. The Guidelines apply to offenders sentenced under the YRA just as they would any other adult offender convicted of a felony.


How is an offender’s Guidelines compliant range and sentencing options for each count calculated?


In its most basic form, an offender’s Guidelines compliant sentencing range and sentencing options depends on what Guidelines grid box he or she falls into. The defendant’s grid box is based on a combination of the severity of the offense being sentenced and the offender’s criminal history score. The Commission’s Basic Sentencing Guidelines Training discusses this in further detail and notes some of the exceptions that may apply. It can be found at:


How can I get a copy of the most up-to-date Guidelines Manual?


The current and all historic Guidelines Manuals are available on the Commission’s website. They can be found at:


Do the Guidelines indicate the term of probation that should be imposed if a judge suspends all or part of an offender’s sentence?


No. The Guidelines do discuss the length of probation imposed or whether should be revoked upon a violation of the conditions of probation. That decision is up to the judge. However, to be compliant with the Guidelines, sentences follow the revocation of probation must fall within the offender’s original sentencing range/options (unless another exception applies).


The Guidelines Manual contains a list of most felony offenses in the District. Does the Commission have a misdemeanor list?


No. Guidelines Appendices C and C-I list almost every District felony offense. The list displays the Commission’s severity ranking for each offense along with some other helpful information. The Guidelines do not currently apply to misdemeanors; therefore the Commission has not ranked them or compiled a similar list.


What is the difference between a compliant in-the-box sentence and a compliant outside-the-box sentence?


A compliant in-the-box sentence is a sentence that falls within the offenders applicable Guidelines sentencing range and sentencing options. A compliant outside-the-box sentence is a sentence that does not fall within the offenders applicable Guidelines sentencing range and/or sentencing options, however it remains compliant with the Guidelines due to a special circumstance, such as the judge citing a valid departure factor. The Commission’s Calculating Judicial Compliance with the Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines Training discusses this distinction. It can be found at:


Are all sentences following a D.C. Crim. Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea bargain compliant with the Guidelines even if the sentence is later determined to be outside of the offender’s Guidelines compliant sentencing range or sentencing options?


Yes. Unlike most plea agreements entered into between the government and a defendant, a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement sets forth a specific sentence or sentencing range that must be imposed by the court. The judge must approve of this type of plea agreement before it can be entered. Because most Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreements are reached before a defendant’s criminal history score is calculated, such pleas are automatically considered compliant with the Guidelines.