Mandatory vs. statutory minimum sentences

by Jamison Koehler on December 4, 2020
D.C. criminal defense attorney

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, a “sentence” is the “judgment that a court formally pronounces after finding a criminal defendant guilty.”  It is “the punishment imposed on a criminal wrongdoer.”  

A “minimum sentence” is defined as the “least amount of time that a defendant must serve in prison before becoming eligible for parole.”

In D.C., there is then the distinction between a mandatory minimum sentence and a statutory minimum sentence.  

Both types of sentences involve a term of imprisonment that must be imposed.  The court has no discretion to sentence the defendant to a lesser sentence.  

The difference is that, in the case of a statutory minimum sentence, the court can suspend all or a portion of the required sentence.  In other words, the defendant does not need to actually serve that time in jail.  Instead, the time is left “hanging over the defendant’s head”; that is, the court can impose up to that amount of jail time were the court to find after a hearing that defendant to violates conditions of his or her release.

By contrast, the court has no discretion to suspend any of the jail time associated with a mandatory minimum sentence.  

Criminal offenses that provide for mandatory minimum sentences include first-degree murder (30 years); armed carjacking (15 years); carjacking (7 years); crimes of violence and dangerous crimes while armed with a firearm (5 years for first conviction and 10 years for subsequent convictions); possession of a firearm during a crime of violence/dangerous crime (5 years); felon in possession of a firearm (1 year); theft I or theft II if two or more theft convictions (1 year); possession of armor piercing ammunition.  

Source:  Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines Manual, The District of Columbia Sentencing Commission, July 15, 2019

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