Pennsylvania Felony Crimes by Degrees and Sentences

Learn the basics of felony sentencing in Pennsylvania.

By , Legal Editor
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated June 14, 2023

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 felony sentencing in Pennsylvania are very complicated. This article explains the basic rules and how they apply in most cases.

Felony Classifications and Penalties in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania law sets limits on the maximum sentence term for most felonies based on the degree of the offense—a felony of the first, second, or third degree. The state has separate sentencing rules for murder.

Penalties for Murder in Pennsylvania

A murder conviction requires the following sentences:

  • first-degree murder: death or life in prison (to be decided by the jury rather than the judge)
  • second-degree murder: life in prison
  • third-degree murder: a fixed prison sentence of no more than 40 years, or a mandatory life sentence if the defendant had a previous conviction for murder or voluntary manslaughter, and
  • attempted murder: a fixed prison sentence of no more than 20 years, or 40 years if the attempt resulted in serious injury.

(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1102; 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9715 (2023).)

First-Degree Felonies in Pennsylvania

The maximum penalty for a felony of the first degree is 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000. Examples of first-degree felonies include rape, kidnapping, burglary, and aggravated arson.

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, 2901, 3121, 3301, 3502 (2023).)

Second-Degree Felonies in Pennsylvania

The maximum penalty for a felony of the second degree is 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000. Examples of second-degree felonies include involuntary manslaughter, theft of a firearm, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and strangulation against a family or household member.

(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 1103, 2504, 2702, 2718, 3903 (2023).)

Third-Degree Felonies in Pennsylvania

The maximum penalty for a felony of the third degree is seven years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000. Examples of third-degree felonies include aggravated hazing, unlawfully providing a firearm to a minor, reckless discharge of a firearm into an occupied structure, animal fighting, and a repeat stalking conviction.

(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 1103, 2707.1, 2709.1, 2803, 5543, 6110.1 (2023).)

Felony Enhancements in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania requires mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes and under some circumstances. For example:

  • If you're convicted of aggravated assault against a victim who's older than 60 or younger than 16, the minimum term of your sentence must be at least two years.
  • If you're convicted of a violent felony, you'll have to serve at least 10 years if you have one previous conviction for another violent felony or at least 25 years with two or more such convictions.

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 (2023).)

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 10 years beyond the regular sentence for rape, which is a first-degree felony. (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3121 (2023).)

How Felony Sentencing Works in Pennsylvania

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 5 to 10 years. The maximum can't be more than the legal limit for your crime, 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.

Sentencing Guidelines

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.


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.

Felony Probation and Other Sentencing Alternatives

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:

  • you have a criminal history
  • your conduct caused or threatened serious harm
  • you're likely to commit another crime
  • you will compensate the victim for any damage or injury resulting from the crime
  • you're likely to respond well to probation supervision, and
  • a prison sentence would create excessive hardship for you or your dependents.

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.

(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1101; 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 9721, 9722, 9726, 9751, 9754, 9755, 9756, 9762; 204 Pa. Admin. Code §§ 303.1-303.18 (2023).)

Felony Statutes of Limitations in Pennsylvania

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 5 years, or 12 years for a major sex offense, including rape and sexual assault. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 5551, 5552 (2023).)

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.

Getting Help With Felony Charges in PA

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.

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