After a criminal defendant is convicted, the court moves forward to the trial’s sentencing phase. Contrary to what many believe, sentencing is not a simple decision but an incredibly complicated process.
Pennsylvania has numerous potential criminal charges, and many sentencing options are spelled out in the state statutes. In addition to the statutes, judges use sentencing guidelines to keep sentencing more uniform. The guidelines involve using sentencing matrixes to assess a defendant’s criminal background and the magnitude of their current charges. In addition, your case’s aggravating and mitigating details may increase or decrease the potential penalties. The final sentence may be enhanced further if certain factors are present, such as domestic violence or the use of a deadly weapon. An attorney can help you use the sentencing guidelines to your advantage and hopefully keep your penalties as low as possible.
The Pennsylvania sentencing guidelines will play a significant role in your sentencing if you are convicted. Our Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyers can offer a free case review to go over your charges, possible consequences, and defense strategies. Call The Law Offices of Lloyd Long at (215) 302-0171.
Potential Penalties for Criminal Statutes in Pennsylvania
In general, criminal offenses in Pennsylvania fall into several distinct categories based on severity and how they are punished. Most offenses are classified as felonies or misdemeanors, with felonies being the more severe charges. Some very minor offenses are known as summary offenses and are rarely punished with jail time, although that is possible. Our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers can assess your charges and determine the extent of the potential penalties.
According to 18 Pa.C.S. § 1103, felony charges are broken into 3 subcategories. Each subcategory varies based on the seriousness of the alleged offense and the extent of the associated penalties. Felonies tend to be very severe, and punishments are often harsh.
The lowest level of felonies is third-degree felonies. Defendants convicted of these charges may be penalized with a prison term of up to 7 years. A second-degree felony is the next step up and may be punished by no more than 10 years in prison. Finally, first-degree felony charges are some of the most serious charges a defendant can be charged with. If convicted, a defendant faces up to 20 years in prison.
Keep in mind that certain charges carry unique penalties outside these statutory guidelines. For example, first-degree felony charges for murder can be punished by life in prison or even capital punishment. Other serious violent felonies might also carry penalties beyond the 20-year maximum for most first-degree felonies. It is important to speak with a lawyer about your charges as soon as possible so you know exactly what you are up against.
Misdemeanors are less severe than felony charges, but they may still carry strict penalties, including possible jail time. A defendant charged with several misdemeanors could end up behind bars for quite some time. Much like felonies, misdemeanors are divided into three subcategories based on severity.
Under 18 Pa.C.S. § 1104, a third-degree misdemeanor may be punished by no more than 1 year in jail. While this might seem like a light offense compared to felony charges, it is an entire year of your life behind bars. A second-degree misdemeanor may be punished by up to 2 years in jail. A first-degree misdemeanor is only one step beneath felony charges and carries more severe penalties. A convicted defendant may face up to 5 years in jail.
Summary offenses are minor and rarely met with arrest or jail time. Most defendants facing summary offenses are issued summons or citations from law enforcement. Common summary offenses in Pennsylvania include underage drinking, disorderly conduct, and shoplifting. Traffic offenses are also considered summary offenses, although they are not considered actual crimes as they violate the motor vehicle code, not the criminal code.
Under 18 Pa.C.S. § 1105, summary offenses may be punished by no more than 90 days in jail. However, jail time for a summary offense is somewhat unusual. Most summary offenses are punished by fines, and defendants often do not have to appear in court.
How Judges Use Sentencing Guidelines in Pennsylvania
While state statutes, like those discussed above, provide the upper limits of sentencing for certain criminal charges, there are many other factors and guidelines to consider when determining the final sentence. Pennsylvania’s official sentencing guidelines contain a matrix that judges use during sentencing. The matrix takes into consideration the gravity of the charges and the criminal history of the defendant. Our Bucks County criminal defense lawyers can help you fight your charges and hopefully avoid a harsh sentence.
The Sentencing Matrix
The sentencing matrix employed by judges is a chart that helps them determine a final sentence. The side of the matrix contains the potential “offense gravity score” of the charges, while the top of the matrix contains the defendant’s “prior record score.” Using these scores, the judge can use the chart to determine how the defendant should be sentenced.
The chart contains numerous possible sentences. The sentences are listed as a range of months in jail or prison. Some parts of the matrix impose restorative sanctions rather than incarceration. Restorative sanctions are typically for lower-level offenses and include punishments that do not involve jail or prison, such as fines, community services, restitution, probation, or being found guilty with no further penalties. The matrix also allows judges to adjust sentencing based on aggravating or mitigating factors in your case.
The purpose of the matrix and the overall sentencing guidelines is to create uniformity in sentencing. Sentencing can be very subjective, and judges often have much discretion. The guidelines and matrix prevent judges from imposing overly harsh penalties or punishing defendants differently even though they are charged with the same crime.
Offense Gravity Score
The offense gravity score measures how severe your charges are. Since this is a very subjective determination, the law has developed a more standard way to assess scores. Specific offense gravity scores can be found under 204 Pa. Code § 303.15.
While the above scores apply to many charges, they might not apply to all. You can talk to our Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyers about your charges, and we can help you determine the offense gravity score. Additionally, the lower your offense gravity score, the lower your overall sentence is likely to be. However, the judge will also consider your prior record score and any mitigating and aggravating factors, as discussed below.
Prior Record Score
Your prior record score is another factor used by judges when they compare your case to the sentencing guidelines. This score is based on your criminal record. Defendants with previous criminal convictions may have a higher prior record score. Talk to our Delaware County criminal defense lawyers about your criminal history, and we can help you figure out what kind of prior record score you might have.
A prior record score is a point value between 1 and 5, with 5 being the most serious. Certain offenders might be assigned to a special category if they are repeat violent offenders or repeat felony offenders. Your score is based on the unique convictions in your history. An extensive list of offenses and associated scores can be found under 204 Pa. Code § 303.15. The higher your overall prior record score, the greater your sentencing range may be. Defendants with low prior record and offense gravity scores are likely to face the least severe sentencing options.
How Details of Your Case Can Influence Your Sentence in a Pennsylvania Criminal Trial
So far, it might sound like your sentence is determined by a standardized system in which offenses and criminal backgrounds are measured and scored. However, the judge still has some discretion that may affect how the final sentence is adjusted. Judges can also consider aggravating and mitigating factors and either reduce or increase your sentence accordingly.
Aggravating factors are the details of your cast that make you look bad to the judge. These details might be used to justify increasing your final sentence. Common examples of aggravating factors include the presence of a weapon, the use of violence, the extent of the victim’s injuries, and the defendant’s lack of remorse.
In some cases, aggravating factors are already built into the offense. For example, robbery is punished more harshly than ordinary theft crime because robbery inherently involves violence. The aggravating factor of violence is already built into the charges. If no violence was present, the charges should be for a lesser theft offense with a lighter penalty. The prosecutor will likely try to highlight the presence of any other aggravating factors and urge the judge to increase the overall sentence.
It is important to discuss every detail of your case, including possibly aggravating factors, with your attorney. Our Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyers can go over the potential aggravating details of your situation and help you prepare accordingly. While the prosecutor can present these aggravating details, the judge might not necessarily be convinced.
Mitigating factors are the opposite of aggravating factors and make you look better in the eyes of the judge. If we can highlight enough mitigating factors, the judge might be persuaded to reduce your sentence. Possible mitigating details might include your cooperation with law enforcement, a show of great remorse, a lack of violence, or attempts to mitigate the damage from your alleged offense, such as calling for help for the victim.
Our Montgomery County criminal defense lawyers can emphasize these mitigating factors during sentencing and hopefully convince the judge that a more lenient penalty is appropriate.
Possible Sentencing Enhancements Under the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines
There might be various other reasons a convicted defendant’s sentence may be enhanced or upgraded. Certain charges contain upgrade information by statute. In other cases, certain aggravating factors will upgrade the sentence automatically. Some common reasons for sentence enhancements under Pennsylvania sentencing guidelines include the presence or use of weapons and issues of domestic violence.
Under 204 Pa. Code § 303.10(a), penalties may be upgraded because of deadly weapons. Deadly weapon enhancements may apply when the defendant allegedly possessed a deadly weapon during the commission of the offense. The weapon does not necessarily have to have been used in the crime, only present. For example, suppose a defendant had a gun holstered on their hip while they committed a burglary, but they never unholstered the gun or fired it. They may still be subject to deadly weapon enhancement simply because the gun was present during the crime.
Domestic violence is another aggravating factor that often leads to enhanced penalties for convicted defendants. According to 204 Pa Code § 303.10(h), offense gravity score assessments may be increased if your case involves domestic violence. Under 42 Pa.C.S. § 9720.8(a), your sentence may be upgraded if domestic violence was committed in the presence of a child.
Using the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines to Your Advantage
While the sentencing guidelines provide judges with tools and guidance to impose harsh prison sentences, they also allow judges the power to reduce sentencing where appropriate. Our Northeast Philadelphia criminal defense attorneys can help you use the guidelines to your advantage. It may be possible to avoid the harshest penalties or even reduce the penalties under the right circumstances.
The first thing we can do is highlight and emphasize all the mitigating factors in your case. The more mitigating details you have, the better for your overall sentence. We need to make sure the judge knows that you are remorseful over the alleged crime and that you cooperated with law enforcement and the court every step of the way. We can also highlight a lack of violence or any other positive aspects of the case.
We can also focus on reducing your offense gravity score and prior record score. Since these scores are so heavily regulated, it may be best to double and triple-check the scoring of the judge and prosecutor. In particularly complex cases, the scores might not be calculated correctly, and defendants might face higher than necessary sentences.
To avoid certain sentence enhancements, we can work on suppressing evidence. For example, if your case involves an alleged deadly weapon, but the police unlawfully seized it, we can suppress it and exclude it from the trial. With no weapon to present, prosecutors cannot argue for a deadly weapon sentence enhancement.
In 2000, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Apprendi v. New Jersey that criminal penalties may not exceed the limits imposed by statutes unless a jury finds the existence of certain aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt. If important pieces of evidence are suppressed and excluded from the trial, it becomes much harder for prosecutors to meet this burden, and we may be able to keep your penalties from increasing.
Contact Our Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Lawyers for a free Evaluation of Your Case
If you have been criminally charged, our Pennsylvania criminal defense attorneys can help you fight the charges and hopefully avoid a harsh sentence. For a case evaluation with our team free of charge, call The Law Offices of Lloyd Long at (215) 302-0171.