At common law a misdemeanor is a crime for which the maximum penalty is generally no more than 1 year in jail. In Washington there are misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors.
Misdemeanors are charged in local Municipal or County District Courts. A misdemeanor has a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000. A gross misdemeanor is punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a maximum fine of $5,000. Fines are rarely imposed (except in DUIs) and most misdemeanors involve a partially suspended sentence.
For example, a sentence for a gross misdemeanor might be 364 days with 334 suspended on certain conditions. That means 30 days in jail (or alternative confinement as explained below) and, if the conditions are met, such as payments of fees and costs and law-abiding behavior for 1 year, that's it. If conditions are not met, the some or all of the balance of the sentence can be un-suspended and further jail time, or additional conditions, imposed.
Deferred Sentences and Alternative Conversion
Sometimes a sentence may be "deferred" in which case charges are dismissed after a period of time, usually one year, if conditions of the sentence have been complied with.
Alternatives to confinement include electronic home monitoring (EHM) and community service. EHM can be costly and generally requires one to have a "land-line" telephone. Recently, some EHM providers work with cell phones.
A felony is a more serious criminal charge and, in most jurisdictions is charged through indictment by a grand jury. Most felonies in Washington felonies are charged by the filing of a document called an "Information." Washington felonies are characterized as being Class A, Class B, Class C, or unranked offenses. Class A is the most serious and unranked felonies are the least serious. The penalty differences are in the maximum amounts of confinement and fines that can be imposed.
An unranked felony is punishable by 0 to 12 months in jail. One's criminal history (offender score) is not taken into account.
For Class A, B, and C felonies the offender score and the seriousness level of the crime charged determine the sentencing range. Offender score consists of criminal history, including felony juvenile dispositions, and "other current offenses." A defendant with no criminal history convicted of two crimes would be sentenced with an offender score of one as each charge (count) would be an "other current offense" adding a point to the offender score.
Concurrent and Consecutive Sentences
Washington law provides that most sentences imposed in one day run concurrently. There are exceptions, such as multiple counts of first-degree assault.
Three Strikes - You're Out
Some serious crimes are "strike offenses." Washington's three strikes law provides for a mandatory sentence of life without possibility of parole on sentencing for a third strike offense.
Two Strikes - You're Out
Further, a two strikes law governs multiple serious sex crimes. Here again, after a conviction, a sentencing judge has no latitude and must impose a life sentence without possibility of parole.
If you have been charged with a criminal offense and are not guilty, a trial may be in your future. Washington provides for a jury trial in which jurors must reach a unanimous verdict. The jury panel consists of six for a misdemeanor trial and 12 for a felony trial.
The prosecutors are well trained and an experienced and competent trial attorney is required if a defendant wishes to prevail at trial. Additionally, a licensed, professional, private investigator can provides valuable assistance in preparing the case for trial.
Prosecutors will often offer a criminal defendant the opportunity to plead guilty to a lower offense or offenses if the evidence is weak, or if the crime has been "over-charged", and to avoid the expense to the state of a trial.
If you have been charged with a criminal offense and are guilty, kinda-sorta guilty, or perhaps guilty only of a lesser offense, an experienced attorney, respected by the prosecutor, is required to negotiate the best possible plea bargain. An experienced criminal defense attorney will never tell you to "take the deal"; the choice of a trial or a plea bargain is always the client's.
Innocent or guilty, a plea bargain offer must be considered using risk analysis. For example, if a six month sentence is offered and the sentencing range on conviction is up to nine months, the risk of a nine month sentence must be weighed against a for sure six month "deal". The risk at trial is three months. If the offer is for two months, the risk is greater - seven months. An experienced criminal defense attorney will guide you through this analysis.
Sentences and "Good Time Credit"
In Washington, sentences up to 12 months are served in county jails. The law provides for Earned Release Time (ERT), often called Good Time Credit. The Pierce County Jail awards one-third ERT (but you have to earn it!). So a nine-month sentence can be served in six months.
Sentences in excess of 12 months are served in a Department of Corrections (DOC) facility. DOC sentences have different ERT rules. Property crimes can earn one-half off. Drug crimes, except for methamphetamine, can also earn one-half off. Most crimes fall into the one-third ERT category. The most serious crimes are only eligible for a ten percent ERT credit.
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