Washington state criminal penalties are governed by statutes which are written and passed by the Washington state legislature. These statutes (laws) can be found in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW). Washington cities and counties may adopt the criminal laws found in the RCWs or they may draft their own versions in a municipal or county code.
These statutes not only define what conduct is considered a Washington crime (theft, assault, driving under the influence) but also the possible punishments that a judge could impose.
For some crimes, the legislature has given judges a great deal of discretion in sentencing. However, for other types of crimes like driving under the influence and felonies, the legislature has limited the discretion of judges and written laws that require a minimum sentence or a sentence within a specific range.
Misdemeanor or Felony
Washington State criminal penalties are divided into two general categories -- misdemeanors and felonies which are defined at RCW 9A.20.021. Misdemeanor crimes are filed in District and Municipal Court while felonies are filed in Superior court.
Misdemeanors are further categorized as either simple misdemeanors or gross misdemeanors. The only significant difference between simple misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors is the maximum punishments a judge could impose:
- Misdemeanor: Up to 90 days in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.
- Gross misdemeanor: Up to 364 days in jail and up to a $5,000 fine.
Felonies are further categorized into class A, B or C felonies with class A felonies being the most serious. Each class of felonies carries the following maximum penalties:
- Class A Felonies: Up to life in prison and up to a $50,000 fine.
- Class B Felonies: Up to 10 years in prison and up to a $20,000 fine.
- Class C Felonies:Up to 5 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
Penalties for Washington State felony cases are governed by the Washington State Sentencing Guidelines. These guidelines create a standard sentencing range for most felonies in Washington State which are governed by the seriousness level of the crime and a defendant's applicable criminal history (an “offender score”). A judge must stay within this sentencing range unless specific aggravating or mitigating factors are established allowing a judge to impose an exceptional sentence above or below the standard range. Additionally, various facts can add additional mandatory penalties on felony cases (i.e. deadly weapon or firearm enhancements, drug offense in a protected zone enhancements).
Finally, some defendants in felony cases may qualify for a sentencing alternative like a first time offender waiver or a drug offender sentencing alternative.
As you can see, determining the potential penalties for a felony conviction in Washington can be very complicated. An experienced Washington State criminal defense attorney can give you a better idea of what potential penalties you are facing on your case and what options may be available to you for sentencing alternatives.
Alcohol Drug Evaluation
If alcohol or drugs were involved in the incident, most judges will require a chemical dependency evaluation prior to imposing a sentence. We have found that judges are very impressed when our clients take the proactive step of obtaining this evaluation early in the process. This shows the judge that you have taken the incident seriously and want to take appropriate steps to avoid any future problems. This is true even if the evaluation determines that you do not have a problem with drugs or alcohol.
We are happy to refer our clients to appropriate treatment professionals who are both well respected by the courts and will give fair and trusted evaluations.
Alcohol or Drug Treatment
If a drug or alcohol evaluation does recommend some level of treatment, we suggest that our clients enroll in and complete the recommendations as soon as possible. Starting and completing any recommended treatment prior to sentencing can help you avoid being placed on active probation by the court (potentially saving you hundreds or thousands of dollars in probation fees). In addition to avoiding active probation, prompt enrollment in any recommended treatment shows the judge that you have taken the case seriously and are not likely to be back before the court due to sentence violations.
Typically, we see the following categories of recommended counseling:
- No significant problem: If a professional determines that you do not have a significant issue with drugs or alcohol, they will recommend an 8 hour alcohol and drug information school. For any DUI related case this class will be a minimum requirement by the court. You can attend this class on a weekend in one day.
- Abuse: If a professional determines that there are issues with drug or alcohol abuse in your life, they will typically recommend somewhere between 6 months to 1 year of treatment, generally once a week for an initial stage of several months and then follow-up one time per month.
- Dependent: If a professional determines that you are drug or alcohol dependent they will generally recommend an intensive outpatient program. Such a program can range from 1 to 2 years of treatment with 72 hours of intensive outpatient treatment over the first 8 weeks and then gradually decrease over three stages. You will generally be required to attend self help meetings (like “AA” or other sober support) during this period of time.
With many driving related offenses, particularly alcohol related offenses such Washington State DUI, DWI, reckless driving, reckless endangerment, and negligent driving the court will require a victim's panel. This is a two hour class taught by victims of DUI. We recommend you do this prior to any sentencing.
Domestic Violence Batter's Treatment:
If you are being sentenced to a crime related to domestic violence you may be required to attend and complete a Domestic Violence Batter's Treatment program. This is typically a 12 month program. There can be many benefits to obtaining a domestic violence evaluation and enrolling in any recommended counseling early in your case. We can advise you on the best approach for your specific case.
Other Independent Counseling:
In some cases, it makes sense for our clients to seek individual counseling to address various issues that might be factors in their arrest. If for no other reason, we sometimes recommend counseling to help our clients deal with the stress of being accused of a crime. We are advocates of counseling and find that judges are often impressed when our clients have taken the initiative to seek counseling to address any personal issues that might be involved. We are able to help obtain letters from counselors and supporting documentation to provide to the court.
In some courts and with some offenses the judge will convert jail and/or fines to community service. Jail is often converted at 8-20 hours of community service to one day in jail. Fines are often converted at $10 per hour of community service. We typically know which courts will do this and can talk to you about it when we meet. Community service can be done at any non-profit organization in Washington State. The courts require proof of community service hours completed on official agency letterhead. The letter must be signed by a supervisor and include the number of hours worked and if possible, what work was done.
In some cases it is appropriate to provide the court with letters of recommendation or character references. We can help advise you on this and help your friends and family draft an appropriate and persuasive letter on your behalf.
While we will be speaking on your behalf at sentencing, you also have the right to speak directly to the judge about yourself and the case. We are happy to help guide you through this process. We generally recommend making any statement short (a paragraph or less) and heartfelt. In our experience we have found that judges like it when people take responsibility for their actions and apologize for any indiscretions. A sentencing is definitely not the time to dispute the charges or argue about the facts of the case.
Of course, you are not required to speak on your own behalf and many people reasonably feel uncomfortable doing so. If you would feel more comfortable, you may chose to write a brief letter to the judge instead of speaking in public.
We work very hard to present a positive picture of our clients at sentencing and point out things such as family life, employment, and good works with the community.