How Criminal Sentencing Works in the Pennsylvania Criminal Justice System

Sentences in Pennsylvania are not arbitrarily made. A judge cannot say, “you, sir, are sentenced to 25 years of prison.” It doesn’t work like that. In Pennsylvania, we have what’s known as “Sentencing Guidelines.” These guidelines prescribe a range of possible sentences that a judge may impose so that the sentence is not arbitrary, but rather based on certain criteria.

How a Criminal Record Impacts Your Sentence

In general, the sentencing guidelines take into account two things. First, the guidelines look to your prior criminal record. The guidelines will essentially look to all previous criminal convictions you’ve had as an adult, as well as any felony convictions you’ve had as a juvenile, absent any juvenile felony convictions that occurred prior to 14 years of age. The guidelines will then compute what’s called a “prior record score.” Your prior record score can range anywhere between 0 to 5. Beyond a 5, your score will then escalate to what’s called a Repeat Felon Offender (“RFEL). Beyond RFEL, your score can max at what’s called a Repeat Violent Offender (“REVOC”).

In calculating a prior record score there are points that will be assigned for previous convictions. General misdemeanor convictions carry ½ of a point. However, there are some misdemeanor convictions that automatically carry one full point. Those are as follows: Misdemeanor 1 offenses that involve weapons, death or danger to children, driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance, except for a first lifetime conviction. And of course, the more serious prior convictions involving crimes of violence and certain felonies, the more points there will be assigned to your prior record score.

What is Pennsylvania’s Offense Gravity Score?

After calculating your prior record score, the guidelines will then look to the instant crime that you’ve been charged with. Essentially, the guidelines will look to the severity of the crime involved in your case. For example, the guidelines will look to whether you’ve been charged with a shoplifting offense or a homicide offense. In looking at the severity of the crime involved, the guidelines will compute what’s known as an “offense gravity score.” Again, this offense gravity score will be based on the severity of the crime you’ve been charged with. The offensive gravity score can range from anywhere from a 1 to 14. Again, this number will depend on the severity of the crime you’ve been charged with.

Once the prior record and offense gravity scores have been properly calculated, the sentencing guidelines will compute three possible ranges of sentences. The first will be what’s called a standard range sentence. The standard range is generally speaking where your sentence will be, however, there is also a mitigated range and an aggravated range of sentences that a judge can impose. If a judge chooses to deviate from the standard range sentence, the law requires that the judge articulate the reasons for the deviation. For example, let’s say that the judge chose to impose a mitigated sentence. The judge would have to find “mitigating” factors in your case to deviate from the standard range and impose a mitigated sentence. On the other hand, let’s say the judge chose to impose an aggravated sentence. The judge would again have to find “aggravating” factors to deviate from the standard range and impose an aggravated sentence.

In short, the sentencing guidelines are comprised of a prior record score and an offense gravity score. Based on these two scores, the guidelines will compute a range of sentences that the judge can choose from in imposing sentence.

Sentencing for Probation or Parole Violations

These two terms are oftentimes used interchangeably. However, they are vastly different and must not be confused with one another. “Probation” refers to a period of supervision for someone who was never in jail. “Parole” refers to a period of supervision for someone who just came out of jail. The difference is demonstrated by showing the effect a violation of probation or parole may have.

For probationary violations, the judge can re-sentence you altogether on the crime that you were convicted of. For example, let’s say you were convicted of a shoplifting offense, and the judge imposed a sentence of 3 years’ probation. In year 2, you violated the terms of your probation. In this instance, the judge can find you are in violation and re-sentence you altogether as if the instant sentence was never imposed.

Parole violations are much different, though. First, let’s start with a basic understanding on how a sentence is imposed when it involves jail-time. There must be a minimum sentence and a maximum sentence imposed. The minimum must be at least half of what the maximum is. For example, if the maximum is 10, then the minimum must be at least 5.

Now that you have basic understanding of the minimum/maximum requirement, let’s take a hypothetical sentence that involves parole. Let’s say that a judge imposed a sentence of 1 to 2 years’ incarceration. Applying the above rule, this sentence would require a minimum period of incarceration of one year with a maximum period of two years. In this hypothetical, you would be eligible for parole—meaning release from prison—after serving your minimum period of one-year incarceration. The balance—one-year—would then be served in the community on parole supervision.

Here’s where the difference between probation and parole come into play. Let’s say that you are now on parole supervision serving the balance of your one-year. During this time, you violate the terms of your parole supervision. Now what? In this instance, the judge is limited to re-sentencing you to the balance of your maximum sentence that you have yet to serve, whereas if it was probation, the judge would have the ability to resentence you altogether!

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing in Pennsylvania

Above we talked about sentencing guidelines and how these are used to assist judges in what your sentence should be. But there are certain crimes that do not qualify for the guidelines. Instead, these crimes fall into a category of their own in that they carry what’s called “mandatory minimum sentences.”

In general, the United States and Pennsylvania Supreme Courts eliminated mandatory minimum sentences as they were ruled illegal by their very nature. However, there are still mandatory minimum sentences that exist and you should be aware of which crimes qualify.

All driving under the influence (DUI) crimes carry mandatory minimum sentences. These sentences are driven by what your blood alcohol content was and how many prior DUI convictions you have had within a 10-year period of time.

There are also mandatory minimum sentences imposed for certain repeat offenders who have been convicted of certain crimes of violence. These crimes generally involve convictions for aggravated assault, robbery, and burglary, to name a few. The law considers these repeat convictions as “strikes.” For a second conviction (or, “strike”) of one of these crimes, the law requires a mandatory minimum of 10 years’ incarceration. For a third conviction (or, “strike”) of one of these crimes, the law requires a mandatory minimum of 25 years’ incarceration.

Our Philadelphia + Bucks County Criminal Defense Attorneys Can Help

When facing sentencing, it is crucial that you come to an experienced and trusted criminal defense attorney who has the knowledge and skills necessary to protect your rights and who can ensure that you are treated fairly by the criminal justice system. Contact Young, Marr & Associates today for a free consultation at (215) 372-8667.

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NO JAIL TIME

Commonwealth v. "H" (DUI case)

Client was charged with three separate DUI cases calling for mandatory minimum imprisonment of 90 days on each case. Client was advised to seek immediate intensive alcohol counseling. Client was sentenced to 1 year of house arrest after serving 3 days in the county prison.

CASE DISMISSED

Commonwealth v. "C" (Felony drug/Firearms case)

Client was charged with felony Delivery of drugs and illegal gun possession and was facing a mandatory 3-6 year prison sentence in the State prison system. Client was sentenced to one year of house arrest.

CASE DISMISSED

Commonwealth v. "S"

Client was charged with simple assault, domestic. After a hearing where evidence and testimony was presented, the entire case was dismissed by Judge Leonard Brown.

CASE DISMISSED

State of New Jersey v. "H"

Charges for young man charged with second degree aggravated assault were downgraded to third degree and he was accepted into the County Pretrial Intervention program with charges to be dismissed and record expunged after one year of misconduct free behavior.

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