I got arrested. What am I looking at? | The Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines

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The Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines

One of the most common questions I get when meeting with a new client is, “What am I looking at if we lose? Am I going to go to jail?” The answer is almost always, “it depends.” 

First, if the client has made the smart decision and hired Goldstein Mehta LLC, the client could very well be looking at winning the case or negotiating entry into a pre-trial diversionary program that will not result in a conviction or incarceration. The above question assumes that the client is going to lose and be convicted of the most serious charge, which is often not the case. There are many cases that can be won at preliminary hearing, through pre-trial motions, or at trial. Each case is different, but we regularly try and win cases. Even those cases that cannot be won can often be negotiated down to lesser charges, so even when the prosecution's evidence is strong, there is always the possibility of working out a good deal for the defendant. Therefore, there are lots of cases in which the client will ultimately not end up serving any kind of sentence or will eventually face a sentence on a less serious charge. 

Second, although there are never any guarantees, it is usually possible to predict the best and worst case scenario by considering any applicable mandatory minimums, sentencing guidelines, and the sentencing practices of the judge.  Even though it is never possible to predict a sentence with complete certainty, it is generally possible to have an idea of what the possible and most likely outcomes are for different types of charges.  

Pennsylvania Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws

When considering what a sentence is likely to entail, the first place to start is to find out whether there are any mandatory minimums. Most Pennsylvania mandatory minimum sentences were eliminated by decisions of the United States and Pennsylvania Supreme Courts. However, a handful of mandatory minimums remain.

For example, there are still mandatory minimums for repeat offenders who are convicted of certain crimes of violence such as F1 Robbery, Aggravated Assault, Homicide, certain types of Burglary and Sex Crimes, and other serious “strike” crimes. There are also significant mandatory minimum sentences for DUI/DWI. The Pennsylvania state legislature has considered reinstating the mandatory minimums which were struck down by the courts, but has not yet done so. You can learn more about mandatory sentences here. There are also still a number of significant mandatory minimums for many federal charges. Therefore, the first step is to figure out if there are any mandatory minimums. If there is one, then the strategy will likely become avoiding a conviction for the charge or fact that would trigger the mandatory minimum. 

Calculating the Sentencing Guidelines in Pennsylvania

Second, once it has been determined whether there are any mandatory minimums, it is critical to calculate the defendant’s sentencing guidelines. The guidelines provide a strong estimate of what type of sentence the defendant could receive if convicted. In both Pennsylvania and the federal system, the sentencing guidelines are not mandatory, meaning a judge can depart upward or downward from the guidelines if there is a good reason to do so. However, judges in both systems are required to calculate the guidelines, strongly consider them, and provide sufficient reasons on the record for departing from them if they choose to do so. Departures from the guidelines are generally more common in state court than they are in federal court, but even in state court, the judges typically sentence based on the guidelines.

Under the Pennsylvania system, every sentence (except for extremely short sentences of a month or two) must have a minimum and a maximum. The maximum must always be at least double the minimum. If the maximum is two years or more, than the defendant will typically serve the sentence in a state prison. If the maximum is less than two years, then the defendant will serve the sentence in the county prison. 

The Pennsylvania sentencing guidelines provide a recommended range for the minimum sentence. Once the judge picks a minimum, the judge is free to pick whatever maximum the judge feels is appropriate up to the statutory maximum for the offense. The recommended minimum range is calculated by determining the defendant’s Prior Record Score and the Offense Gravity Score of the charge. The Prior Record Score and Offense Gravity Score are then entered into a sentencing matrix, and the matrix provides a recommended minimum sentence. In many cases, the standard sentencing matrix will apply. However, if the prosecution can prove that the defendant possessed or used a deadly weapon during the commission of the crime, then an alternative matrix could apply which will recommend a more severe sentence. 

The Offense Gravity Score

Each offense has an assigned numeric Offense Gravity Score. When the judge or pre-sentence investigator calculates the guidelines after a conviction or plea, he or she will do it for each offense. The judge will typically sentence based on the most serious charge, but a judge can always run sentences consecutive if the judge so chooses. It is often common to attach probation sentences to some of the less serious charges. For purposes of providing an example, possessing a concealed, loaded firearm without a license (which violates VUFA Sec. 6106) has an Offense Gravity Score of 9. The Offense Gravity Score for each offense can be found at http://www.pacode.com/secure/data/204/chapter303/s303.15.html. 

Calculating the Prior Record Score

Once the Offense Gravity Score has been calculated, the next step is to determine the defendant’s Prior Record Score. Just as each charge has a corresponding Offense Gravity Score, each conviction also has a corresponding Prior Record Score. For example, Possession with the Intent to Deliver provides two points towards a defendant’s Prior Record Score. The Prior Record Score is calculated by adding up the points that correspond with each of the defendant’s prior convictions. The maximum Prior Record Score is 5, but there are two special categories for defendants with certain felony convictions. Defendants with prior convictions for F1 or F2 felonies which total more than 5 points have a prior record score of REFEL, and Defendants with prior violent convictions for certain F1 felonies who are charged with additional violent offenses could have a prior record score of REVOC. It is also important to note that many adjudications of delinquency for juvenile offenders will count towards the Prior Record Score. The Prior Record Score points for each offense are listed at http://www.pacode.com/secure/data/204/chapter303/s303.15.html. 

The Standard Range Guideline Sentencing Matrix

The Standard Range Guideline Sentencing Matrix

Sentencing Guidelines for Possessing a Concealed Firearm Without a License to Carry

Once the Offense Gravity Score and Prior Record Score have been calculated, the above sentencing matrix can be used to determine the recommended minimum sentencing range. There are different matrices for crimes committed while in possession of a deadly weapon or where a deadly weapon was used, and there are also certain sentencing enhancements for certain offenses like possession of child pornography. However, the basic sentencing matrix above applies to most cases. As you can see, in the example above in which a defendant has a Prior Record Score of 2 for a PWID conviction and an Offense Gravity Score of 9 for a VUFA 6106 charge, the recommended minimum sentence is 12 – 24 months plus or minus 12 months. This means a standard guideline sentence would have a minimum of somewhere between one and two years, but the Judge can subtract 12 months if there is overwhelming mitigation evidence or add 12 months if there are significant aggravating factors. The judge would then have to pick a maximum sentence which is at least double the minimum, so if the judge were to sentence the defendant to a minimum of 18 months of incarceration, the judge would have to make the sentence at least 18-36 months. 

This leads to the last and possibly most important part of predicting what the defendant is looking at. As the example above illustrates, the judge has a tremendous amount of discretion in determining the sentence. For a VUFA 6106 conviction, which is an extremely common offense, the judge could sentence anywhere from probation to 3-6 years in state prison and still have imposed a guideline sentence. Guideline sentences are very difficult to have overturned on appeal. For this reason, it is extremely important to have a lawyer who understands not only the mandatory minimums and the applicable sentencing guidelines, but also the sentencing practices of the judge. If the lawyer knows from experience that the judge is likely to impose a mitigated sentence for an open (meaning non-negotiated) guilty plea, then the lawyer can advise a client to reject an offer from the Commonwealth which is not fully mitigated. Likewise, if the lawyer knows that the judge is likely to impose a low guideline sentence even after conviction at a bench trial, the lawyer may be able to provide advice that it is better to have a judge trial than a jury trial. Obviously, it is critically important that you hire a lawyer who knows the system, knows the law around sentencing, and has experience practicing before the judges who would ultimately impose sentence. It is even more important that you have a lawyer who understands the importance of sentencing and how to craft a persuasive mitigation argument for the judge in order to get the judge to impose a mitigated or below guideline sentence.  

Our Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers Can Help

The Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers of Goldstein Mehta LLC have the legal expertise and practical experience necessarily to properly advise and defend anyone facing criminal charges in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties. We know the law, we know the defenses, and we have experience practicing before the judges. We can evaluate your case and potential defenses and come up with a plan to minimize the consequences of an arrest – whether that means negotiating a better sentence or taking the case to trial for an acquittal. If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges, call 267-225-2545 today for a free, confidential consultation

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The Pennsylvania Deadly Weapon Used Sentencing Guidelines