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Limits on the Authority of the Sentencing Judge

In 1982, in ostensible reaction to the public perception of the excessive leniency of judges in issuing criminal sentences and to general concerns about unrestrained judicial discretion, Pennsylvania instituted sentencing guidelines promulgated by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. These guidelines were comprised of a comprehensive framework which serves to regulate the decisions of trial judges regarding criminal sentencing.

In that same year, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed comprehensive legislation that set strict mandatory minimum prison terms for certain repeat and violent offenses, which represented yet another check on the judiciary’s sentencing authority. Most Pennsylvania mandatory minimum sentences were struck down as unconstitutional by decisions of the United States and Pennsylvania Supreme Courts, because they required that the judge, rather than the jury, make factual findings in the case that would mandate the minimum sentence. However, several of these mandatory sentences still remain.

Mandatory minimum sentences still exist in certain offenses, including repeat offenders who are convicted of certain crimes of violence such as Felony-1 Robbery, Aggravated Assault, Homicide, certain types of Burglary and Sex Crimes, and other serious crimes. These offenses are called “strike” offenses. For a second conviction of one of these crimes, considered a “strike” against the defendant (using a baseball analogy), the law requires a mandatory minimum of 10 years’ incarceration. For a third conviction, or a “third strike,” of one of these crimes, the law requires a mandatory minimum of 25 years’ incarceration.

All driving under the influence (DUI) crimes require mandatory minimum sentences. These sentences are based upon such factors as blood-alcohol content prior DUI convictions within a 10-year period of time. Other mandatory minimum sentences which apply to the sexual abuse of children have also been reinstated and may call for significant periods of incarceration.

After giving due consideration to the application of mandatory minimum sentences in issuing a sentence, the trial judge must also consult the aforementioned sentencing guidelines. These guidelines, as the name implies, are not strictly mandatory, but provide sound guidance in determining sentences. Trial judges are required to conduct an analysis under the guidelines and must strongly consider them. If a Court of Common Pleas judge decides to deviate from the guidelines, either increasing or decreasing a sentence dictated by the guidelines, he must provide an explanation on the record, giving sufficient reasons for doing so.

The Pennsylvania sentencing guidelines provide a range for determining a minimum sentence for a given offense. After determining a minimum sentence, the sentencing judge has discretion to determine a maximum that he deems appropriate, up to the statutory maximum for the offense.

The recommended minimum range considers the seriousness of the offense, called the “offense gravity score”; and the Defendant’s prior criminal history, known as the “prior record score.” The Prior Record Score and Offense Gravity Score are entered into a sentencing matrix, and the matrix provides a recommended minimum sentence.

Additionally, the sentencing judge has at her disposal, the authority to extend or reduce a sentence, based on the factual circumstances of an individual case. These factors are called “mitigating” and “aggravating” factors. For example, a Defendant’s mental illness, or good behavior could serve to shorten his sentence. Other reasons include whether he made restitution to the victim of the crime or whether he pleaded guilty to the offense, rather than having a jury trial.

Similarly, a Defendant’s sentence may be increased, based on aggravating factors such as whether the Defendant is a repeat offender, the egregious nature of the crime, or whether the crime was a breach of the public trust.

Pennsylvania judges may also divide a sentence between incarceration and probation or parole as long as the sentence’s total length is below the allowed maximum. That is, the minimum sentence date cannot exceed half of the maximum sentence, also known as the “min/max rule.”

If you or your loved one has been convicted of a Judge and have not yet been sentenced, please contact an attorney at Tanner Law Offices at 717-836-0471 to schedule a consultation to discuss ways that we can help you ensure that your sentencing rights are protected.