Pennsylvania, like most states, distinguishes criminal offenses based on their severity. The most serious crimes are felonies, while less-serious crimes are treated as misdemeanors. Most felonies are further divided into three different degrees, although murder is in a category of its own.
The laws on sentencing in Pennsylvania are very complicated, with many exceptions. This article explains the basic rules and how they apply in most cases.
Pennsylvania uses what’s known as “indeterminate” sentencing for most felonies. This means that when you’re convicted and sentenced to imprisonment, the judge will set a minimum and maximum term—such as five to 10 years. The maximum can’t be more than the legal limit for your crime (as discussed below), and the minimum can’t be more than half of the maximum. Generally, you’ll be eligible for parole consideration once you’ve served the minimum amount of time.
The state has sentencing guidelines to help judges decide on the most appropriate sentence within the legal limits, based on factors like your criminal record, whether you possessed or used a weapon during the crime, and aggravating or mitigating circumstances. However, judges aren’t legally required to follow the guidelines.
In Pennsylvania, the maximum term of your sentence will determine where you’re incarcerated, rather than the category of the crime. Typically, you’ll serve your time in state prison if the maximum term is more than two years and in county jail (or what’s known as county prison in Pennsylvania) if it’s less than that. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 9756, 9762; 204 Pa. Admin. Code §§303.1-303.18 (2020).)
Pennsylvania law sets limits on the maximum term of the sentence for most felonies, depending on the degree:
However, some specific crimes call for different sentences, including ones with fixed terms instead of indeterminate ones. For instance, rape of a victim under age 13 requires a fixed term of 40 years, or life in prison if the victim was seriously injured. (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 1103, 3121 (2020).)
The state has separate sentencing rules for murder and attempted murder. Instead of indeterminate sentences, these cases require the following sentences:
(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1102; 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9715 (2020).)
Pennsylvania requires mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes and under some circumstances. For example:
When the law requires a mandatory minimum sentence, the maximum sentence must be at least twice as long, regardless of the upper sentencing limit for the relevant degree of felony. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 9714, 9717, 9718 (2020)).
However, when laws on mandatory minimums require the judge, rather than the jury, to make findings about facts in the case that would trigger the minimum sentence—such as whether the defendant possessed a gun during the crime—Pennsylvania courts have struck down those laws as unconstitutional.
In some cases, Pennsylvania law requires penalties in addition to the standard sentence for the relevant felony category. For instance, drug rape calls for an additional prison term of ten years beyond the regular sentence for rape, which is a first-degree felony (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3121 (2020).)
In some cases, the judge may order you to serve your sentence on probation instead of prison (unless your crime has a mandatory minimum sentence) or to serve what’s commonly known as a “split sentence,” meaning that you’ll spend part of the time incarcerated and part of the time on probation. However, the total amount of time shouldn’t add up to more than the legal maximum for your crime.
When deciding whether to order probation in your case, the judge will consider a number of factors, including whether:
The judge also has the option of sentencing you to drug treatment or to partial confinement, which would allow you to leave prison for approved reasons like working, school, or taking care of your family.
Finally, the judge may order you to pay a fine—either instead of a prison sentence or in addition to a sentence of incarceration or probation—unless you wouldn’t be able to pay it, or the fine would prevent you from paying restitution to the victim (which is required any time the victim suffered an injury or property loss). Generally, you can’t be ordered to pay more than the maximum fine for your crime:
However, the fine could be higher than that if it’s based on how much you gained financially from the crime (up to twice that amount). (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1101; 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 9721, 9722, 9726, 9751, 9754, 9755 (2020).)
All states set time limits on when prosecutors can charge someone with a crime (known as criminal “statutes of limitations”). However, there’s no time limit in Pennsylvania for a handful of serious crimes like murder, voluntary manslaughter, various sex offenses against minor victims, and hit-and-run accidents that result in serious injury or death. The limitations period for other felonies is generally five years, or 12 years for a major sex offense, including rape and sexual assault. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 5551, 5552 2020).)
However, there are circumstances that will extend the statute of limitations for some crimes. For details, see our article on the criminal statutes of limitations in Pennsylvania.
If you’re facing felony charges in Pennsylvania, you should speak with a local criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. A felony conviction will stay on your criminal record and could lead to serious, long-term consequences. An attorney who’s familiar with the local criminal court system, Pennsylvania law, and cases like yours should be able to explain how the law applies to your case, advise you about the risks and advantages of plea bargaining, and help ensure that you get the best outcome possible under the circumstances.
States can change their laws at any time. You can find the current version of any statute mentioned in this article by using this search tool. Be aware, however, that court opinions can affect how judges interpret and apply the law—another good reason to talk with an attorney if you're concerned about actual or potential criminal charges.