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Tuesday, October 3, 2023
Oct. 3, 2023

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Standard ranges, not judges, often dictate sentencing length in Washington


WALLA WALLA — In 2022, three Walla Walla men pleaded guilty to the same charge, connected to the same incident. The three men were sentenced to vastly different sentences, ranging from six months in jail to eight years in prison.

This was mandated by the state’s use of criminal history-based standard ranges.

When someone is arrested in Washington and they have their first appearance in court, they hear the charges they have been arrested on and what the maximum penalty could be if convicted of the charges.

In most cases, however, these maximum penalties cannot actually be applied.

“It’s not a terribly relevant number,” defense attorney and Walla Walla County Superior Court Commissioner Patricia Fulton said about the maximum penalty. “That’s what I tell my clients. When they come in to talk to me about their case, they will often say, ‘Oh my God, it’s 10 years.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, wait a minute, let’s see.’”

Offender scores

In the above case, Joey C. Barnes, Quentin N. Hunter and Billy J. Sargent originally were charged with second-degree murder in connection to the 2019 death of College Place resident Arcane “AJ” Wilkinson in Wallula.

The three pleaded guilty to rendering criminal assistance, a Class B felony, in exchange for testifying against Christian W. Scott, the man prosecutors believed shot and killed Wilkinson.

The three men had vastly different criminal histories, and therefore, vastly different “offender scores.”

In Washington, there are three classes of felonies. Maximum penalties are life in prison for Class A felonies, 10 years in prison for Class B felonies, and five years in prison for Class C felonies.

Before standard ranges were put in place in 1984, judges had much more discretion in sentencing than they do today. They could give any sentence up to the maximum. Then, Fulton said, parole boards took it from there.

“The board would be the decider if a person could be released or when a person could be released,” Fulton said.

An offender score-based range system was adopted in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1981, which took effect July 1, 1984. The Washington Legislature developed formulas to determine offender scores and ranges for each crime based on those scores.

According to the state’s “Adult Sentencing Guidelines Manual,” the goal of the 1981 act “is to ensure that offenders who commit similar crimes and have similar criminal histories receive equivalent sentences.”

Walla Walla County Judge Brandon L. Johnson said he shares this goal, even if it means reduced discretion for judges.

“Personally, I think it makes sense to try to achieve more equal protection or due process,” Johnson said. “Just treating people the same throughout the state.”

Offender scores range from zero to “9+,” meaning it’s capped at nine.

The formula for determining an offender score varies by crime. Sometimes, as is the case with rendering criminal assistance, it’s as simple as adding one “point” for each past felony the defendant has been convicted of.

Sometimes it’s more complicated. For residential burglary, as an example, past burglary convictions add two points, while other felonies add one.

Higher offender score, longer sentence

In the Wallula case, Barns had no felonies on his record. His offender score was zero. The standard range for rendering criminal assistance for a person with an offender score of zero is six months to one year. Walla Walla county Superior Court Judge M. Scott Wolfram sentenced Barns to six months in jail.

Sargent had a more extensive criminal history, with an offender score of seven.

He was sentenced to four and a quarter years — or 51 months — in prison. The sentence was the low end of his standard range of 51 to 68 months.

Meanwhile, Hunter had the maximum offender score of “9+.” He received eight years — or 96 months — in prison. This was the high end of his range of 72 to 96 months.

What is the real maximum?

Hunter’s high-end eight-year sentence is still two years below the 10-year maximum for Class B felonies. The reason is that the maximum includes community custody time, often informally referred to as probation.

Hunter’s conviction came with a mandated two years of community custody to follow his sentence. When added to his eight-year sentence, that reaches the 10-year maximum.

High-end sentences for some other crimes, however, don’t reach the maximum because not all crimes of the same felony class are considered equally serious.

State law divides the seriousness of offenses into 16 categories. Rendering criminal assistance and intimidating a public servant are both Class B felonies. However, the former has a seriousness level of five while the latter has a seriousness level of three.

The high-end sentence for intimidating a public servant for the top offender score is 68 months — five years and eight months.

Aggravating, mitigating factors

There are exceptions to standard ranges.

According to state law, courts “may impose a sentence outside the standard sentence range for that offense if it finds … that there are substantial and compelling reasons justifying an exceptional sentence.”

Johnson and Fulton said that under the law, it’s easier for a judge to find mitigating factors to lessen a sentence than to find aggravating factors to increase it.

“Aggravating factors, factors which increase the sentence, a judge doesn’t just get to decide,” Fulton said. “They have to be either stipulated by the parties … or found by the jury.”

“The aggravating factors also have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Johnson added.

The aggravating factors are defined by state law, and include things such as, “The defendant used his or her position of trust, confidence, or fiduciary responsibility to facilitate the commission of the current offense,” “The current offense was a violent offense, and the defendant knew that the victim of the current offense was pregnant,” and “The defendant’s conduct during the commission of the current offense manifested deliberate cruelty to the victim.”

In addition to deciding a guilty verdict, the jury would have to find that an aggravating factor existed for the judge to be allowed to impose a sentence outside the standard range.

The standard for a judge to go below the range is lower because the judge does not need mitigating factors to be determined by a jury.


Another element that can lead to higher sentences are enhancements attached to a charge. A common example of this is the firearm enhancement, which adds time to the standard range if a felony was committed with a firearm.

If a Class A felony is committed with a firearm, the standard range increases by five years. The enhancement is three years for a Class B felony and 18 months for a Class C felony.

However, in no circumstances can the sentence go above the state mandated maximums of five years for a Class C felony, 10 years for a Class B felony or life in prison for a Class A felony.

Judges’ discretion

Standard ranges lesson the judge’s discretion in sentencing but does not remove it. Several years can make up the gap between the low end and the high end of a standard range, depending on the crime. And the judge can sentence an offender anywhere in that range.

Johnson said while standard ranges do restrict a judge’s discretion, it also strengthens it in some ways.

While defendants used to be able to appeal any sentence for being too long, that is no longer the case.

“If a defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty and is sentenced within the standard range — which can be the low end or the high end — you do not have a right to appeal that sentence,” Johnson said. “That doesn’t mean that you can’t appeal or argue that there were other errors in your trial. But you can’t go to the court of appeals and say, ‘This judge gave me a sentence that is so extreme, you should look at it.’”

In adding the standard ranges, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1981 put the Legislature in charge of determining what sentences should be.

“Because sentences are set by the Legislature, if people have complaints, that’s where they should send them,” Johnson said. “But as judicial officers, the standard range is the standard range.”