Sentencing In Pennsylvania Or ‘What Am I Looking At?’

by William Jorden on May 10, 2011

by Harry Faber White, II, Esquire

Every attorney who practices criminal law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, has been asked by a usually nervous client . . . “what am I looking at?” Although the question is simple, the answer is not.

Each particular sentence depends on the client’s prior criminal history, the current charges and in some cases, mandatory or enhanced sentence laws.

Sentence Guidelines

Pennsylvania initiated its first sentencing guidelines in 1982. Those guidelines and other sentence-related laws are updated by the legislature on an increasingly regular basis, usually leading to more significant and longer sentences.

Under the Pennsylvania Sentence Guidelines, all offenses have an Offense Gravity Score (OGS). An OGS is assigned for each offense for which a defendant is convicted. The offense gravity scores start with a (1), which is primarily Misdemeanor 3s, and go to (14), which is generally third degree murder.

The OGS is an index of the seriousness of the crime. For instance, burglary of a house, when a person is home, carries an OGS of (8), where burglary of a house, when no one is home, carries an OGS of (7). Burglary of a business, where nobody stays overnight and nobody is present, carries an OGS of (5).

Each individual defendant is also assigned a Prior Record Score (PRS). PRSs are based on the type and number of prior adult and juvenile convictions There are eight PRS categories: zero through five, repeat violent offender, and repeat Felony 1 and Felony 2 offenders. Each specific crime has a number of prior record points which are automatically assigned for that conviction. Most of the less serious misdemeanors do not individually translate into a prior record point, but one point is assigned for each two misdemeanor convictions.

The actual sentence is determined by a “sentencing matrix” which is a fancy name for a chart showing the OGS, bottom to top, and the PRS, left to right. The shorter sentences are for the less serious crimes with a low prior record score. The higher the prior record, the longer the sentence is for the same crime.

The sentence guidelines provide a range of months for each combination of PRSs and OGSs. This is called the standard range. A sentencing judge can increase or decrease the sentence based on another number, which is also a number of months known as the aggravated/mitigated factor.

An example of the sentencing equation is as follows: If someone burglarizes a home and a person is present, the sentence guidelines call for a standard range sentence of twelve to twenty-four months for a person who has never been in trouble. If a person committed the same burglary and had a prior record score of three, that person’s standard range would be between thirty and forty-two months. The guideline monthly figures represents the “front-end” or minimum sentence given to the defendant. All defendants in Pennsylvania receive a minimum sentence and a maximum sentence. The minimum sentence has to be ½ or less than the maximum sentence. Accordingly, if an offender’s standard range was between thirty months and forty-two months, the actual sentence would be between the range of thirty months to sixty months, and forty-two to eighty-four months.

In almost all cases, a defendant must serve at least his or her minimum sentence before becoming eligible for parole.

Most Pennsylvania sentences, where the maximum exceeds two years, are served in the state correctional system. Most sentences, with a minimum less than two years, are served in local jails.

Mandatory Sentences

Mandatory sentence laws establish the shortest sentence that an offender can receive upon a conviction for a certain crime. Importantly, the sentencing judge has no authority to impose a sentence shorter than the one called for by the mandatory provisions. Mandatory sentences are different than the guideline sentences discussed above in that the sentencing judge is permitted to deviate from the guideline by placing his reasons for departure on the record.

With a mandatory sentence, there is absolutely no right to deviate from the mandatory minimum. Certain crimes require mandatory sentences. Examples are murder in the first degree, life imprisonment or a death sentence; drug delivery resulting in a death, a mandatory five years; possessing illegal ammunition during the commission of a crime of violence, a mandatory five years; drug sales, depending on the type of drug and weight and whether the defendant has a prior conviction, carry mandatories of one, two, three, four, five, seven or eight years. For instance, deliveries of two grams of cocaine or five grams of methamphetamine, carry a mandatory sentence of two years; delivery of over ten grams of cocaine, carries a mandatory sentence of three years. Rape and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, when the victim is under sixteen years of age, require a mandatory five year sentence; homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence requires a three year minimum mandatory sentence for each person killed in the accident.

Sentence Enhancements

Sentence enhancements are increases in guideline sentences. The most common one is the deadly weapon enhancement. If an offender possessed a weapon during the commission of a crime, when the possession of the weapon is not already an element of that crime, the enhancement applies. Another enhancement applies when an offender distributes a controlled substance to persons under eighteen, or to anyone within one thousand feet of a public or private school. In that case, an enhancement of twelve to thirty-six months is added to the sentence.

As a result of sentence guidelines, mandatory sentences and sentence enhancements, sentences are generally longer now than they have ever been in the history of our country. Because society is burdened by crime, the legislatures routinely increase penalties and sentences.

As always, be smart, and avoid trouble, so that you don’t have to ask, “What am I looking at?”

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