Pennsylvania Felony Crimes by Degrees and Sentences

Learn the basics of how criminal sentencing works in Pennsylvania, the maximum sentences you could receive for different categories of felonies, when mandatory minimum sentences apply, and sentencing alternatives to prison.

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.

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 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).)

Legal Maximum and Minimum Sentences for Felonies

Pennsylvania law sets limits on the maximum term of the sentence for most felonies, depending on the degree:

  • First-degree felony: 20 years.
  • Second-degree felony: 10 years.
  • Third-degree felony: seven years.

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).)

Sentences for Murder

The state has separate sentencing rules for murder and attempted murder. Instead of indeterminate sentences, these cases require 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.
  • Attempted murder: a fixed prison sentence of no more than 20 year, or 40 years if the attempt resulted in serious injury.

(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1102; 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9715 (2020).)

Mandatory Minimum Sentences and Additional Penalties for Some Felonies

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 (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).)

Probation, Fines, and Other Sentencing Alternatives to Prison

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 any 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.

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:

  • $50,000 for murder or attempted murder
  • $25,000 for first- or second-degree felonies, or
  • $15,000 for third-degree felonies.

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).)

Time Limits for Bringing Felony Charges 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 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.

Getting Help With Criminal Charges

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.

Look Out for Legal Changes

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.

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