In Washington, D.C., as in most U.S. states, felonies are crimes that carry a potential punishment of more than a year in prison. In contrast, misdemeanors in the District of Columbia are less serious crimes that may be punished by no more than a year in jail.
This article will review the basics of felony crimes and sentencing under the Code of the District of Columbia ("D.C. Code").
The D.C. Code doesn't group felonies into different classes for purposes of general sentencing. Rather, the statutes related to individual felonies spell out the maximum sentences for those crimes—and sometimes the minimum sentences.
Here are some examples of the sentences that the law in D.C. allows for certain felonies:
(D.C. Code §§ 16-711, 16-712, 22-404.01, 22-2104, 22-2801, 22-3002, 22-3212, 22-3134 (2023).)
Beyond the statutory penalties for individual crimes, the D.C. Code allows or requires stiffer penalties under certain conditions, including the following.
Previous felony convictions. If you're convicted of a felony and have two previous felony convictions (regardless of the specific crime), the judge may impose a longer sentence than the maximum statutory penalty for the most recent crime, up to 30 years. However, if your previous and current convictions were all for violent crimes, the judge must sentence you to at least 15 years in prison—and may give you a sentence as long as life without the possibility of release.
Previous convictions for violent crimes. Some crimes, such as assault with the intent to commit rape, require minimum prison terms if you have a previous conviction for a violent crime.
Previous convictions for the same crime. As a general rule, anytime you're convicted of a felony and have a previous conviction for the same offense, the judge may sentence you to a prison term (or require you to pay a fine) that's 50% longer than the statutory maximum for that crime. If you have two previous convictions, you could receive a sentence that's three times the statutory maximum. (When a specific crime calls for a higher penalty on a second or third conviction, that penalty will apply rather than the general rule.)
Crimes against protected victims. Judges may also impose sentences that are 50% longer than the statutory maximum for some crimes against certain victims, including seniors (65 or older), minors, and transit operators.
Hate crimes. Lengthier sentences (50% over the statutory maximum) are also allowed for bias-related crimes that show the defendant's prejudice against the victim based on a wide range of actual or perceived characteristics, including race, national origin, age, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, physical disability, homelessness, political affiliation, and personal appearance.
(D.C. Code §§ 22-1804, 22-1804a, 22-3601, 22-3611, 22-3701, 22-3703, 22-3751.01, 24-403 (2023).)
Judges must impose felony sentences that reflect the seriousness of the offense and offender. They may use Sentencing Guidelines (found here) to aid in their decision. The guidelines provide a standard sentencing range based on a defendant's current offense and criminal history.
Unless you've been convicted of a crime that carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence, the judge may decide to suspend all or part of your sentence and place you on probation for up to five years.
If the judge suspends only part of the sentence, you'll serve a certain amount of time behind bars. This type of sentence is referred to as a long or short split sentence. The judge may also suspend the entire sentence of incarceration, in which case, it's a true probation sentence.
As a condition of probation for a felony, the judge may order you to remain in custody (which could be in a community correctional center) during nights, weekends, or other intervals. To remain in the community, the defendant must abide by all probation conditions. A violation can result in modification or revocation of probation. Revocation means the defendant must serve their prison sentence.
(D.C. Code § 16-710, 16-712 (2023).)
The District of Columbia uses a system of indeterminate sentencing for felonies. That means that when a judge sentences you to imprisonment, the sentence will include both a minimum and maximum amount of time (within the legal limits for the crime), such as 3 to 10 years. The minimum term may not be longer than one-third of the maximum sentence (or no longer than 15 years when the maximum is life in prison). After you've served the minimum term, you'll be eligible to be considered for release on parole.
When you're sentenced to prison, the judge must also impose a period of supervision after your release. The term of supervised release may not be longer than three years—or five years if the maximum prison sentence for that felony is 25 years or more.
(D.C. Code §§ 24-403, 24-403.01 (2023).)
Prosecutors must generally file criminal charges against a suspect within a certain amount of time of the crime being committed. This time limit is called a statute of limitations. If the prosecution doesn't file the charges within these time limits, the defendant can ask the court to dismiss the charges.
In D.C., the prosecution typically has six years to file felony charges. However, several exceptions exist. Some felonies have 10-year time limits, and at least two dozen felonies have no time limit, which means the prosecution can file charges at any time. Felonies with no statute of limitations include murder, sexual abuse crimes, and incest. The law also "stops" the clock, so to speak, when a person is a fugitive and for certain crimes against children and crimes committed while a public official is in office.
(D.C. Code § 23-113 (2023).)
A felony conviction can have long-lasting, serious consequences. Even after you've served the sentence, having a felony on your record could make it difficult to get a job, find housing, or qualify for some government benefits. It could also subject you to stiffer penalties if you get in trouble with the law again. If you're facing potential felony charges, speak to a local criminal defense lawyer. An experienced attorney can help you navigate the criminal justice system, negotiate a favorable plea bargain if that's appropriate, protect your rights, and help you reach the best outcome possible under the circumstances.