Washington Sentencing Guidelines

In 1981, the Washington State Legislature passed the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA), in order to “make the criminal justice system accountable to the public by developing a system for the sentencing of felony offenders which structures, but does not eliminate, discretionary decisions affecting sentences.” As part of the SRA, the legislature commissioned a committee to establish recommended standard sentence ranges for all felony sentences and a system for determining which sentencing range applies to each offender based on the prior, current and the nature of the offender's criminal history. The SRA also provides recommended standards to govern whether sentences are to be served consecutively or concurrently. The SRA only applies to a person convicted of a felony offense.

At sentencing for a person convicted of a felony, the court will generally impose a sentence within the sentence range for the offense. There exists a statutory mechanism for the court to impose a sentence outside the standard sentence range if the court finds there are substantial and compelling reasons justifying an exceptional sentence. However, in almost all instances, before the court can impose a sentence outside the standard range, the State must allege in the Information the statutory reasons the State seeks prove to a jury for imposing a sentence outside the standard range. If and only if, those statutory factors are proven to a jury, by proof beyond a reasonable doubt, may the court impose a sentence beyond the standard range sentence.

The committee establishing the sentence system divided almost all felony offenses into fifteen levels of seriousness, ranging from low, seriousness level of I, to high, seriousness level of XV. The committee also established a means to consider an offender’s criminal history into the sentence. This is called an “Offender Score”. The offender score is computed by consideration of the offender’s prior juvenile and adult felony convictions. The committee established a sentencing reference grid, where the felony offense seriousness score is compared with the offender score to assist the sentencing judge to the type and length of sentence recommended by the guidelines. The sentencing judge merely has to intersect the two scores on the grid to determine the presumptive sentencing range. The judge has broad discretion to sentence anywhere within the range.

The SRA provides guidance to a sentencing judge regarding the handling of conviction on multiple counts, and whether the sentencing should run consecutively or concurrently. Typically, only convictions on serious violent offenses are sentenced consecutively. Additionally, the SRA provides the State to request sentencing enhancements such as for the use of a firearm or deadly weapon during the commission of a crime. The sentencing enhancement for a firearm is an additional sixty (60) months to the presumptive sentencing range.

The SRA also provides the sentencing judge with alternatives to a presumptive sentencing range. The legislature provided for a “first time offender sentencing alternative” for no-violent offenses and offenders with no prior felony convictions.

The “special sex offender sentencing alternative” (SSOSA) is available to specified sex offenders. The offender must be evaluated by a certified sex offender therapist, who must assess the defendant's amenability to treatment and the offender’s relative risk to the community. The therapist will send the SSOSA evaluation to the offender’s attorney and the court. The court will review the evaluation along with the Department of Correction’s “Pre-Sentence Investigation” report. The court has broad discretion in granting or denying this sentencing alternative. If the court grants the SSOSA, the court imposes a prison sentence within the standard range then the court suspends the prison sentence. The court may, but in most instances will, impose up to six months of confinement. The court has the option of allowing the offender to serve this sentence in partial confinement, and order sexual deviancy treatment and community supervision for up to three years. The court will also impose a significant number of conditions upon the offender. These conditions will include a restriction on your ability to have contact with certain individuals, restrict your access to children (including your own), limit your ability to change jobs, prohibit your ability to consume alcohol, and limit your access to the internet. The court can require you to submit to various monitoring, including polygraph examinations, to insure your compliance with the conditions. You will have a community corrections officer who will supervise you during the period of community custody. If the offender violates any of the conditions of the sentence, the court may revoke the suspension and impose the standard prison sentence. In most instances, this is a significantly lengthy sentence. Before the court will revoke the SSOSA sentence, the offender is given a hearing to determine if the offender has violated any condition and whether revocation of the suspended sentence is the appropriate sanction. Again, the court has broad discretion in determining whether a violation has occurred and in revoking the suspended sentence.

For person convicted of certain drug delivery offenses, there exists a “drug offender sentencing alternative” (DOSA). To be eligible, the drug offense must involve only a small quantity of the drug. The statute provides broad discretion to the sentencing judge to determine whether under the facts of a particular case if the quantity of drug is a small quantity. If the court determines that a DOSA sentence is appropriate for the defendant, the court will sentence the defendant to confinement for a period equaling one-half of the mid-point of the standard range sentence. During the period of confinement, the statute requires the offender to submit to appropriate drug treatment. There are also available in some instances community based treatment options where the offender remains under the supervision of the Department of Corrections. The court will impose significant restrictions and limitations on your activities and associations. The offender will be monitored by a community corrections officer. Unlike other sentencing alternatives, any alleged violations of the condition will be resolved administratively by the Department of Corrections. The offender is not afforded the assistance of counsel at these administrative violation hearings.

Washington is one of the few states which maintain a “Work ethic camp” sentencing option. The work ethic camp is run by the Department of Corrections is available to an offender whose standard sentence range is between 16 and 36 months. If the offender is placed in work ethic camp, the program lasts between four and six months. The camp focuses on job training, ethics training, drug counseling and basic adult education.

Recently, Washington has adopted a sentencing alternative related to an offender’s parental obligations called the Parenting Sentencing Alternative. To be eligible the offender must be the parent with physical custody of a child under the age of 18 at the time of the offense and the high end of the sentencing range must be greater than twelve months. The court will impose conditions of the sentence which will include parenting classes, chemical dependency treatment, mental health treatment and vocational training. The court will also inquire of the Department of Social and Health Services to investigate the offender and the offender’s children and report to the sentencing court.

Before any person accused of a crime decides to proceed to trial or enter a plea of guilty to an offense, it is imperative the offender understands the consequences to their actions. The offender must know the presumptive standard ranges and how those ranges can be affected by enhancements or aggravating factors. The offender must know the sentencing judge’s authority to impose a sentence below the presumptive sentence range and whether the offender is eligible for any sentencing alternatives. You need an experienced attorney to explain the SRA to you in a manner you and your family can understand. You need the knowledge and experience of a seasoned criminal defense attorney with over 20 plus years of working within the SRA to assist you.

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