Excessive Sentencing Project - District of Columbia

Policies and rulings on lengthy imprisonment terms in District of Columbia.

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  • Since 2004, the District of Columbia Superior Court has imposed sentences under the Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines for all felony offenses. 
  • DC eliminated parole via the Sentencing Reform Amendment Act of 2000 
State Constitution

The District of Columbia does not have its own unique local constitution.

Key Sentencing Provisions

The new sentencing rules, which apply to all offenses committed on or after August 5, 2000, resulted in not only a shift from an “indeterminate” sentencing system to a “determinate” sentencing system for all criminal offenses, but also adjusted the authorized penalties for offenses that carried a maximum sentence of life imprisonment:

  • Generally, the court may impose a prison sentence of up to 60 years for first degree murder, up to 40 years for second degree murder, and up to 30 years for other offenses that carried a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
  • If the prosecutor meets certain procedural requirements and if an “aggravating factor” is found, the court may impose a prison sentence in excess of 60 years for first degree murder or first degree murder while armed, in excess of 40 years for second degree murder while armed, or in excess of 30 years for carjacking while armed, first degree sexual abuse, first degree sexual abuse while armed, first degree child sexual abuse, or first degree child sexual abuse while armed.
  • The court may impose a sentence of life without release upon conviction of the following offenses: murder of police officer and the third conviction for a crime of violence.
  • The court may, if there is an aggravating circumstance, impose a sentence of life without release upon conviction of the following offenses: first degree murder, first degree sexual abuse, and first degree child sexual abuse.
  • The court may, if there is a finding of an aggravating circumstance, impose a sentence in excess of 60 years upon conviction of the following offense: first degree murder.
  • The court may, if there is a finding of an aggravating circumstance, impose a sentence in excess of 40 years upon conviction of the following offense: second degree murder.
  • The court may, if there is a finding of an aggravating circumstance, impose a sentence in excess of 30 years upon conviction of the following offenses: first degree sexual abuse, first degree sexual abuse while armed, first degree child sexual abuse, first degree child sexual abuse while armed, and carjacking while armed (but not more than 45 years).
Case Law

General 

The D.C. Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines can be ignored or even misapplied, with no avenue for appellate relief, in part because D.C. Code § 3-105(c) provides that these Guidelines “shall not create any legally enforceable rights in any party”.   See also Speaks v. United States, 959 A.2d 712, 717-720 (D.C. 2008):

“D.C.Code § 3–105 means what it says — that the guidelines are voluntary, they are “not binding on [trial] judges,” they create no “legally enforceable rights” for either appellant or the government, and consequently, a trial judge “in an individual case may impose any sentence that does not exceed the maximum term prescribed by law.”  Inasmuch as the sentences imposed on appellant by the trial court concededly conformed to the statute, they may not be assailed on the sole ground that they are not compliant with the guidelines....

“As this court very recently held in another case where a trial judge's sentence was challenged based upon an assertion that the judge misinterpreted the guidelines, it is not our business to interpret the guidelines where they create no legally enforceable rights....  By design, the Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines are entirely voluntary, and judges are free to apply or ignore them as they see fit without interference by this Court.”

Johnson v. United States, 26 A.3d 758 (D.C. 2011): 

“DC Code § 24–403.01(a) presents a list of factors for a court to consider when sentencing an offender, ... provid[ing] that a court “shall” impose a sentence reflecting the seriousness of the offense, providing for just punishment, and providing educational or vocational training....  In some cases, there will simply not be a sentence that could accommodate all three statutory provisions, and in those situations a sentencing judge has no choice but to balance them.”

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Proportionality 

Because DC does not have its own unique local constitution, its proportionality jurisprudence has tracked the ups-and-downs of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.   This has essentially meant, in turn, that constitutional claims to attack lengthy prison sentences have not be successful in the District of Columbia courts.

For example, in Crawford v. United States, 628 A.2d 1002 (D.C. 1993), the D.C. Court of Appeals relied on  Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991), to summarily reject claim of disproportionate punishment for an "aggregated sentence of minimum term of 51 years and eight months and maximum term of 155 years" for a defendant convicted of two counts of enticing minor, one count of indecent liberties with minor and seven counts of sodomy of minor based, in part, on the age of the victim and the defendant's criminal history.

Similarly, in Cook v. United States, 932 A.2d 506 (D.C. 2007), the Court cited Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991), and Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003), to support its ruling that a sentence of 12 years in prison for unlawful possession of heroin with intent to distribute did not violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment.

Leading Court Discussions of Graham and Miller 

 James v. United States, 59 A.3d 1233 (D.C. January 24, 2013) (avoid the question whether Miller and Graham can be applied retroactively; LWOP for mandatory minimum of 30 years does not violate Miller because D.C. Code has already take youth into consideration by limiting the minimum sentence to 30 years for juvenile offenders; execution style murder is vicious so is not grossly disproportionate under Eighth Amendment)