Without any legal experience, it can be challenging to understand the risks involved with a criminal charge. Each judge is different and considers factors such as the need for rehabilitation, remorse, and other details unique to each case when sentencing a guilty defendant.
Despite this, all Pennsylvania judges rely on a defining set of guidelines that outline recommended sentences based on the offender’s criminal history and the severity of the crime. As you continue reading, we will help you understand the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines and how they could affect your criminal charges.
What are the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines?
The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing was created by judges, lawyers, and government officials in 1978 to create a fair standard for sentencing across all Pennsylvania courts. The Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines were created to establish sentence recommendations for crimes based on their seriousness and the perpetrator’s prior criminal record.
These guidelines present an average sentence for a crime and a range of higher and lower sentences that the judge can choose to fit the circumstances of the case. The Commission meets regularly to assess these guidelines and modify them if necessary before giving the most current version to each state judge.
A sentencing judge can choose from this range of sentences to determine an appropriate punishment when the defendant pleads guilty or is convicted of the crime. While the guidelines are not mandatory, sentences outside of the recommended range are rare.
One rule that judges in Pennsylvania must adhere to when sentencing an offender to incarceration is the minimum-maximum rule. This states that the minimum sentence cannot exceed half of the maximum sentence. For example, a 12- to 24-month sentence is an acceptable sentence in which the defendant would serve at least 12 months in jail before becoming eligible for parole. However, a judge could not sentence someone to 10-12 months of incarceration.
Calculating Your Sentence with the Guidelines
While it is not always accurate, the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines provide vital information to predict what type of sentence to expect if you are convicted. The Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission created the guidelines by taking into account the defendant’s prior criminal record, the seriousness of the current crime, and circumstantial influences to create a matrix containing suggested sentences for almost any kind of charge.
A prior record score assigns the defendant a point value based on the number and severity of their misdemeanor and felony convictions. This includes out-of-state offenses and juvenile adjudications for a felony or certain misdemeanors on or after a person’s 14th birthday. The sentencing guidelines recommend more severe sentences for individuals with higher scores.
Some offenses qualify as an ungraded misdemeanor, which adds half a point to the prior record score. These charges only count if two different misdemeanors add a whole point to the score.
If the defendant was convicted of several offenses in the same case, the point value depends on whether it included concurrent or consecutive sentences. If the offenses run concurrently, only one offense counts toward the prior record score. On the other hand, each offense with consecutive sentences contributes to the prior record score.
Offense Gravity Score
Criminal charges in Pennsylvania are each assigned an offense gravity score depending on the seriousness of the crime. Like the prior record score, a higher offense gravity score ensures that more serious crimes receive longer sentences.
Modifications to Sentences
The Pennsylvania Commission of Sentencing modifies some of the guidelines based on the specific circumstances of the crime. This includes a deadly weapons enhancement that recommends matrices of more severe sentences depending on whether an individual possesses or uses a deadly weapon, with a clear distinction between the two.
The Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines also modify a prior convictions score depending on the severity of previous crimes. Repeated violent offender (REVOC) is a special category for those who have at least two convictions for offenses worth four points and have an offense gravity score of nine or more. Repeat felony offenders (RFEL) have been convicted for at least six points worth of felony-one or felony-two offenses and do not fall under the REVOC category.
The sentencing judge can increase or decrease a sentence depending on the case’s circumstances called mitigating and aggravating factors. Mitigating factors used as reasons to shorten a sentence could include pleading guilty, mental illness, or good behavior.
On the other hand, a judge can increase a sentence based on aggravating factors such as repeat offenses, hate crimes, or abuse of a leadership role. Pennsylvania judges can also split a sentence between incarceration and probation as long as the sentence’s total length is below the allowed maximum.
While judges often have discretion in choosing the lengths of sentences and allowing alternatives, they are subject to some court restrictions. A sentencing judge must follow the mandatory minimum sentencing or maximum sentencing laws for a crime if the district attorney enforces them. Likewise, trial judges cannot sentence an offender beyond the maximum penalty provided by Pennsylvania law.
County or State Incarceration
If the maximum incarceration sentence is at least 24 months long, you will serve your jail time in a state correctional facility rather than a county prison. When combined with the minimum-maximum rule, the longest sentence that a prisoner can serve in county jail is 11.5-23 months. Judges often choose this sentence length if they believe that the inmate deserves the more favorable conditions and better chances at parole provided by the county prison.
Using the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines
With both a prior record score and offense gravity score, you can calculate the sentencing guidelines by using the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission’s sentencing matrix. Matching the scores together indicates the sentencing range, which a judge can add to or subtract from based on a range of mitigating and aggravating factors.
While the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines are primarily helpful in determining the likelihood of going to prison and for how long, your lawyer can use them to help you decide whether you want to litigate. If the guidelines indicate that the most likely sentence for a conviction is probation, you could consider turning down a probation offer if there is a good chance of winning the case.
Likewise, if repeat offenses or a severe crime shift the matrix toward harsher sentences with higher chances of jail time, it may be best to consider an offer from the district attorney that sits well below the sentences from the guidelines. The Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines give you an average sentence that you can use to weigh your options.
Sentencing Guidelines Matrix Levels
The Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines constitute a matrix of levels of offenses and the number of prior crimes. Moving up through the levels indicates more serious crimes, while moving to the right applies more prior crimes. Sentences in the matrix are more severe when moving in these directions.
Defendants with no prior criminal record have a previous record score of zero. Each offense has its point assignment according to 204 Pa.Code §303.15, and the total score can range between one and five if the offender does not qualify for the REVOC and RFEL categories.
Offense gravity scores range from one to 14 depending on the seriousness of the crime but are categorized into five levels that generally indicate the likelihood of incarceration. The levels of offense gravity in ascending order and example offenses given are as follows.
Level 1 contains most misdemeanors, for which the guidelines usually assign probation as the suggested restorative sanctions. Crimes in this level include possessing a small amount of marijuana, disorderly conduct, and theft of between $50-200.
Level 2 still includes the possibility for probations, but county incarceration becomes more likely. Some examples of level 2 crimes are simple assault, possessing a weapon on school property, forgery, possession of marijuana with the intent to deliver, and driving while under the influence.
Level 3 crimes could result in incarceration in either state or county prisons, depending on their severity. For example, homicide by vehicle and burglary when no one is present are deemed less severe than robbery that inflicts bodily injury or assault by a prisoner.
Level 4 is when state incarceration becomes likely, with crimes such as aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, firearm theft, and theft of an amount greater than or equal to $500,000.
Level 5 covers the most extensive range of offense gravity scores, from nine to 14. Even without a prior criminal record, a conviction for these crimes calls for a minimum sentence of 12 months, meaning that they are all punishable by state incarceration. The lower scores include home burglary with a person present and robbery felonies, while the highest levels include rape, murder, and distributing amounts of cocaine over 1000g.
Whatever charges you face, you can trust Wyland Law Group’s experienced criminal defense attorneys. Our lawyers in Pennsylvania will help you understand what the sentencing guidelines mean for your case and negotiate for a lighter sentence.
Call us today (412)710-0013