A Quick Guide to How PA Judges Impose Sentences

How does a judge decide on a sentence?

When sentencing a defendant, Pennsylvania state judges are required to consider several factors.   The judge must balance public safety, the impact of the crime on the victim and the community, and the rehabilitation of the defendant.   The judge must also consider the sentencing guidelines set forth by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.   The guidelines provide a possible range of sentences for the judge to choose from.  Once that range of sentences has been determined the judge will then decide on a specific punishment based on any mitigating or aggravating factors in the defendant’s case.

What is the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing?

The Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission was formed in 1978, in order to promote fair and uniform sentencing across the state of Pennsylvania.  The Commission is made up of members of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives and Senate, other Pennsylvania government officials, judges, and lawyers.  The members of the Commission meet regularly and are responsible for creating sentencing guidelines for all of the crimes in Pennsylvania.  The Commission may also modify the sentencing guidelines, as necessary.  The most recent version of the guidelines is given to every state judge.

What does the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission consider when creating the sentencing guidelines?

When crafting the guidelines for a particular offense, the Commission is required to take into account the seriousness of the crime, a defendant’s criminal history, the effect of the criminal behavior on public safety, and the possibility of mitigating and aggravating factors. Under Pennsylvania law, some crimes have a minimum or maximum sentence, which judges are required to enforce.  The Sentencing Commission must keep these requirements in mind when creating the sentencing guidelines.

What are the sentencing guidelines?

The guidelines for sentencing a specific defendant are determined using two numbers: the offense gravity score and the prior record score.  The offense gravity score is a numerical representation of the seriousness of the crime committed by the defendant.  This score is designed to ensure that a defendant who committed a more severe crime receives a longer sentence than a defendant who committed a less severe crime.  The prior record score is a numerical representation of the defendant’s criminal history.  This score is designed to ensure that a defendant with an extensive criminal record receives a longer sentence than a defendant with no criminal record.

The guidelines do not provide a specific sentence.  Instead the guidelines state an average sentence for the defendant’s crime and provide a range of higher and lower sentences for the judge to consider.

What are mitigating and aggravating factors?

Mitigating factors are things that reflect well on the defendant and may contribute to a shorter sentence.  These factors include cooperating with the police, a solid employment record, a supportive family, pleading guilty, attempts by the defendant to further his education, a show of genuine remorse, and no prior criminal convictions.

Aggravating factors are things that do not reflect well on the defendant and may contribute to an longer sentence.  These factors include not cooperating with the police, a spotty or non-existent employment record, a history of violence, no attempts by the defendant to further his education, a lack of genuine remorse, and a lengthy criminal record.

Will a judge impose a sentence outside of the guidelines?

The sentencing guidelines are not mandatory, but most of the time judges will follow them.  Usually, judges will only impose a sentence outside of the guidelines if there are extreme mitigating or aggravating factors in a defendant’s case.

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