What are the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines?
If you have been charged with a crime in Pennsylvania it is important to understand the risks involved. Judges make sentencing decisions based on a number of factors. Every judge is different but all judges must consider the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines. The Guidelines are promulgated by the Commission on Sentencing and set forth sentence recommendations based on an individuals prior criminal record and the seriousness of the offense. For example, if you are charged and arrested for Possession With Intent to Deliver, the recommended sentence will be different based on whether this is your first offense or if you have been convicted of prior crimes.
How do the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines Work?
The guidelines are listed in matrix form. At the bottom left of the matrix are non-violent misdemeanor offenses and individuals with no prior criminal record. As the matrix moves up and to the right, the crimes become more serious and sentences apply to individuals with more substantial prior crimes. For example the guidelines for someone whose prior record score is “0” (no prior convictions) and is arrested and convicted for Retail Theft – 1st Offense, >$2,000.00 is Restorative Sanctions or Probation. Note that a conviction for the same offense by someone with a substantial prior criminal record or “RFEL” is twelve to eighteen months incarceration +/- three months. Therefore the guidelines differ dramatically based on your contacts with the system. A first-time offender may reasonably expect probation for a misdemeanor gun possession case, whereas the same gun possession case for a prior convicted felon may call for years in prison.
How Can I Calculate the Sentencing Guidelines for my Case?
Sentencing guidelines are measured by determining “Prior Record Score” and “Offense Gravity Score.” Offense gravity score is designated by 204 Pa. Code § 303.1. Sentencing guidelines standards. A list of offenses and their relative scores can be found here. Additionally, the Pennsylvania legislature has delineated Prior Record Score Points pursuant to Pa. Code § 303.7. For example a prior conviction for Aggravated Assault is a felony 1 (3 point offense) whereas a prior DUI: First Offense may qualify as an ungraded misdemeanor carrying a prior record score of zero unless there are additional ungraded misdemeanor convictions. The guidelines can be misleading and are not intended to be the sole factor for consideration at sentencing. For example an individual who is convicted of a purse snatching graded as a Robbery may have a much higher offense gravity score (7) than someone who is convicted of a similar crime that is graded as a Theft (e.g., offense gravity score of 1). Therefore it may be important to raise such distinctions with the sentencing judge.
Using the Sentencing Guidelines to Weigh Risks of Litigation
You should consider the sentencing guidelines before making the decision to litigate. For example if you have been charged with Possession With Intent to Deliver a Schedule 1 narcotic and have no prior criminal record, you may receive probation if convicted. Therefore it may be reasonable to turn down a probation offer if you believe you can win the case at trial. On the other hand an individual with the same PWID charge who has a Prior Record Score of four (“4”) could receive fifteen to twenty-one months if convicted. Therefore is may be unreasonable to turn down a probation offer under such circumstances. Additionally, the repeat offender already has a criminal record and therefore may face less stigma with accepting probation and a conviction for additional criminal charges. Often times in Philadelphia the District Attorney will make an offer well below the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines. If such an offer is made you should consider whether litigation and/or trial may result in far more serious sentence. Therefore the guidelines may provide insight into the quality of the deal you have received from the Office of the District Attorney of Philadelphia.
How Important are the Sentencing Guidelines in Determining Sentence?
The Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines are similar to a weather forecast. The forecast may provide you with some useful information but is not always accurate. For example if the guidelines in your case are very high it is likely you may face prison if convicted. If the guidelines call for probation then incarceration is unlikely. If you are not clearly at the top or bottom of the matrix then other factors may dictate whether you go to prison. For example a judge will consider the specific facts and circumstances of your case, any relevant mitigation (e.g., taking responsibility, lack of prior criminal record, employment, good behavior, mental illness, and/or genuine remorse, etc.), and aggravating factors (e.g., repeat offenses, vulnerability of the victim, hate crimes, leadership role, and/or mandatory minimum sentences in limited cases). It is also important to consider the judge hearing your case.
Do Judges Follow the Sentencing Guidelines?
In Pennsylvania some judges have reputations for disregarding the sentencing guidelines and imposing maximum or heavy sentences. On the other hand some judges may be more lenient and consistently impose sentences at or below the minimum guidelines. Therefore the guidelines are not absolute. You should also remember that all guidelines carry a substantial range. For example the above-referenced Possession With Intent to Deliver Schedule 1 narcotic charge carries a range for three to twelve months +/- six. Therefore a judge could sentence the first-time offender to anything from probation to an eighteen month prison term while remaining within the guidelines. In such situations it is important that you speak with a Philadelphia Criminal Defense attorney to evaluate where your case falls within the range and get a more accurate forecast of your sentence if convicted.
Are There any Other Factors that Affect the Sentencing Guidelines?
Yes. The Pennsylvania Commission of Sentencing modifies the guidelines in specific circumstances. For example the above-referenced individual who committed a retail theft may face probation for a first time offense. If the court determines the above “Deadly Weapons Enhancement” applies then the guidelines shift to six to seven months incarceration +/- twelve. This example is for merely illustrative purposes, as an individual charged with Retail Theft under the DWE would likely also face other more serious charges. Nevertheless it is illustrative of the heightened guidelines for criminal acts that are considered to be violent and/or dangerous
Note that the commission also creates a distinction between “using” and “possessing” a deadly weapon. Therefore using our same example if an individual committed a retail theft and “possessed” a deadly weapon but did not “use” the weapon the guidelines would three to four months +/-3 if defendant had no prior criminal record. The enhancement matrixes highlight the importance of accurately gauging the recommended sentence. A mistake in reading the guidelines can mean the difference between incarceration and probation. As always if you have any questions about calculating the prior record score and offense gravity score of a given offense, speak with a Philadelphia Criminal Defense lawyer about the specific facts of your case.
Do the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines Apply if I win my Case?
No. It’s important remember that the Sentencing Guidelines only apply if you are found guilty. If you are found not guilty there is no sentence as your are not convicted. It is also important to remember that if you beat the more serious charges in your case, then the Court should apply the guidelines to only the less serious charges for which you were convicted. For example if you were charged with Aggravated Assault and Simple Assault, but were convicted of Simple Assault only then the guidelines would be based on the lesser charge only. On the other hand the judge may consider sentencing you towards the upper guidelines for Simple Assault since the crime at issue was likely more serious than most clear-cut misdemeanor assault offenses.
The Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines are like a weather forecast. It is important to know the weather but remember forecasts are not always reliable. There are many factors to consider in weighing a likely sentence. The guidelines are one important factor but other considerations carry great importance. If you have been charged with a crime or are trying to understand your sentence guidelines speak with a Philadelphia Criminal Defense attorney about a free no obligation consultation.
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Please note: This blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. No information in this blog article should be relied upon in making legal decisions about your case. If you have legal questions, speak with an experienced Philadelphia criminal lawyer about the specific facts of your case. No blog post can take the place of tailored legal advice to the specific facts of your case.