The Lab @ DC
Stronger Evidence for a Stronger DC

How can we use data to make DC's criminal laws more fair?

How can we use data to make DC's criminal laws more fair?

Criminal Code Reform Commission

Project Summary
In 2016, the Criminal Code Reform Commission (CCRC) was created to, among other things, recommend changes in law that will ensure that the ranges of penalties allowed by each criminal statute are fair. A statute is a written law. In the Criminal Code, a statute defines a specific crime, and lays out a range of penalties from which a judge can select, like sentencing a defendant to between one and twelve months in prison. To inform the CCRC’s recommendations, The Lab @ DC analyzed data about adult charging and sentencing patterns in the District’s Superior Court. The analyses showed whether judges were most often giving sentences that were at the lower end or higher end of the range that is allowed by statute. This “clustering” suggests that the penalty ranges provided in some statutes may be out of step with current norms.

Why is this issue important in DC?
Many of the District’s criminal statutes date back to 1901 and the imprisonment penalties authorized by District statutes have never been evaluated against the backdrop of modern sentencing practices in courts. One part of the CCRC’s work is to recommend changes to the range of sentences a judge may impose on someone convicted of a crime. If the range of sentences authorized by District laws is very different from what judges typically impose, it may be that the penalties do not accurately reflect the seriousness of the crime by today’s standards.

Thousands of sentencing decisions are made by DC Superior Court judges each year. While those decisions are recorded in court documents, it would take years for the CCRC to go through them on a case-by-case basis and analyze whether the decision was at the high, middle, or low end of the range of suggested sentences.

What did we do?
The Lab cleaned and analyzed charging and sentencing data from the D.C. Superior Court between 2010 and 2016. The analysis showed the frequency of charges and convictions, as well as sentence lengths for each conviction. Other analyses showed how each criminal charge contributed to the total days in jail or prison a resident had to serve.

What have we learned?
There are over 750 criminal offenses in DC statute, but many of them are rarely or never used in court. Just 20 charges accounted for the majority of all convictions. Additionally, most sentences are much closer to the low end of the range provided in each statute, suggesting that the penalties authorized by statute may be too severe. For example, a specific charge might have an authorized penalty of 360 months, but judges most often give sentences close to 20 months and never give sentences above 48 months.

These findings tell the CCRC which criminal statutes are most commonly relied upon in the District’s criminal justice system and suggest where penalties authorized by statute may be out of step with judges’ typical sentencing decisions and need to be analyzed further.

Many of the District’s criminal statutes were created by Congress over a century ago and may not reflect current norms—that’s a problem we have to address.
— Richard Schmechel, DC Criminal Code Reform Commission Executive Director

What comes next?
The Lab’s analysis helped CCRC prioritize criminal laws for reform: they are focusing their efforts on the most commonly charged and convicted offenses to increase the impact of their work. In the future, the CCRC will use the Lab’s analysis of Superior Court data, in concert with other data sources and assessments of penalties, to propose updated penalties for District offenses.