Misdemeanors are less-serious crimes than felonies. But in Pennsylvania, unlike most states, some misdemeanors could lead to a jail sentence for more than a year—and you might even have to serve time in state prison for the most serious misdemeanors.
Pennsylvania’s criminal sentencing rules are complicated, and judges have considerable leeway when deciding on a sentence. This article gives a basic overview of how sentencing works in the state, the different degrees of misdemeanors and maximum sentences for each of them, and potential alternatives to jail as punishment for misdemeanors. (See our article on Pennsylvania felony crimes to learn about sentences for those more-serious crimes.)
Pennsylvania uses what’s known as “indeterminate” sentencing for most crimes. This means that when you’re convicted and sentenced to incarceration, the judge will set a minimum and maximum term—such as one to two years. As a general rule, 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.
You’ll be eligible to be considered for parole once you’ve served the minimum term of your sentence. Even before you’ve served the minimum, however, you might be eligible for parole as part of a reentry plan, as long as your maximum sentence was less than two years.
In Pennsylvania, the maximum term of your sentence will determine where you’re incarcerated, rather than the category of the crime you committed. You’ll serve your time in county jail (or what may be called county prison in Pennsylvania) if the maximum term in your sentence is two years or less. As a general rule, you’ll go to state prison for sentences that are longer than that, unless certain conditions are met—including whether the local jail can handle inmates with sentences of up to five years. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 9756, 9762 (2020).)
The state has sentencing guidelines to help Pennsylvania judges decide on the most appropriate sentence (within the legal limits), based on factors such as your criminal record and aggravating or mitigating circumstances. However, these are only guidelines; judges aren’t legally required to follow them. (204 Pa. Admin. Code §§303.1-303.18. (2020).)
Pennsylvania law sets upper limits on the maximum terms in most sentences, depending on the degree of misdemeanor:
Many individual crimes have different maximum sentences than the standard one. For instance, possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use carries a maximum jail sentence in Pennsylvania of 30 days and/or a $500 fine, even though it’s a misdemeanor. (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 106, 1104; Pa. Stat. tit. 35, § 780-113(g) (2020).)
Pennsylvania requires mandatory minimum sentences for some misdemeanors and under some circumstances. This means that the lower end of the indeterminate sentence range must be for at least a certain amount of time. For example:
(75 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 3802, 3803, 3804; Pa. Stat. tit. 35, § 780-113 (2020).)
Some crimes that are generally treated as misdemeanors in Pennsylvania can become felonies, depending on your prior record. For example, stalking is generally a first-degree misdemeanor, but it’s a third-degree felony if you have a previous conviction for stalking, certain violent crimes, or violating a protective order (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2709.1 (2020)).
Pennsylvania law allows various alternatives to a sentence in jail for a misdemeanor (Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9721 (2020)).
Depending on the circumstances, you may receive a sentence of probation instead of incarceration (unless there’s a mandatory minimum sentence for your crime) or what's known as a “split sentence,” which means you’ll spend part of the sentence in jail and the rest on probation. The judge will consider several factors when deciding whether to order either form of probation in your case, including whether:
(42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 9721, 9722, 9726, 9754 (2020).)
The judge may order you to pay a fine instead of jail (or in addition to a jail sentence). However, a fine isn’t allowed if you don’t have the ability to pay or if it would prevent you from paying restitution (discussed below). As a general rule, the fine can’t be higher than twice the amount of your financial gain from the crime or, if it’s not based on your gain, the maximum for the degree of misdemeanor:
As with jail sentences, many individual misdemeanor crimes have different maximum fines, and some require minimum fines in addition to incarceration. (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1101; 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 9726, 9758 (2020).)
The judge also has the option of sentencing you to drug treatment or to partial confinement for a misdemeanor, which would allow you to leave prison for approved reasons like working, school, or taking care of your family. For some low-level misdemeanors like graffiti, you may be sentenced to supervised community service instead of incarceration. Finally, unless there’s a mandatory minimum sentence, the judge might declare you guilty of a misdemeanor without imposing any additional penalty. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 9720, 9722, 9724, 9753, 9755 (2020).)
If you’re convicted of a misdemeanor that involved stealing or damaging the victim’s property, or the victim was injured during the crime, the judge will order you to pay restitution. Payment of the ordered restitution will be a condition of any probation or parole, but you shouldn’t be incarcerated for failure to pay if you simply weren’t able to do so. (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1106; 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9721 (2020).)
Below are just a few examples of crimes that Pennsylvania treats as misdemeanors.
(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 2504, 3903, 3929 (2020).)
(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 3903, 3131, 5502 (2020).)
(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 2709, 3903, 5503 (2020).)
Misdemeanor offenses in Pennsylvania could have significant potential penalties, including a prison sentence. If you’ve been charged with a crime, approached by investigators, or simply need legal advice about potential charges, you should talk to a qualified Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney at your first available opportunity. An experienced defense lawyer in your area will be able to evaluate your case, advise you on your legal options—including the advantages and disadvantages of plea bargaining—and help you obtain the best outcome that’s possible under the circumstances.
Look Out for Legal Changes
Pennsylvania could change its laws at any time, but you can find the current version of any statute mentioned in this article with this search tool. However, court opinions affect how these laws are interpreted and applied, which is another good reason to consult a lawyer if you're concerned about actual or potential criminal charges.