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.
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.
A murder conviction requires the following sentences:
(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1102; 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9715 (2023).)
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).)
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).)
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).)
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 (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).)
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.
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.
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.
(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).)
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.
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.