Which Crimes Have Mandatory Sentences in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws are highly controversial and are currently undergoing significant changes. While many of the state’s mandatory sentencing laws were found unconstitutional in the wake of Alleyne v. United States in 2013, the mandatory sentencing system has not been abolished and many offenses still have the potential to carry lengthy minimums. Our Northampton County criminal defense lawyers explain some of the possible minimum sentences, major changes to old sentencing laws, and how PCRA petitions can help people who have already been convicted.
Ruling on Mandatory Minimum Sentencing in Pennsylvania
With exceptions for extremely serious felony offenses like murder and aggravated sexual assault, many crimes are eligible for probation as an alternative to serving a sentence. When a person is placed on probation, it means that he or she can avoid going to jail or prison, so long as he or she complies with a strict list of rules and regulations which are enforced by the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole (PBPP). Probationary requirements generally include abstinence from illegal drugs, avoiding new arrests, and periodically checking in with the probation officer.
Needless to say, most people who are convicted strongly prefer probation over incarceration. But unfortunately, that’s not always an option, as the state of Pennsylvania follows mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for certain offenses.
In the 2013 case of Alleyne v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that any facts which could lengthen a mandatory minimum sentence — in Alleyne, the brandishing of a weapon — must be found by the jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, rather than by the judge passing the sentence. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the 5-4 majority opinion that “when a finding of fact alters the legally prescribed punishment so as to aggravate it, the fact necessarily forms a constituent part of a new offense and must be submitted to the jury.”
While this recent ruling and its legal implications are promising for defendants and their loved ones, the fact remains that many offenses still have the potential to trigger mandatory minimum sentences in state of Pennsylvania.
In the wake of the Alleyne ruling, many of Pennsylvania’s Courts of Common Pleas began to find a substantial number of Pennsylvania’s old mandatory minimums unconstitutional. For example, in the 2014 case of Commonwealth v. Newman which followed shortly thereafter, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that under Alleyne, Pennsylvania’s former five- to 10-year mandatory minimum for drug possession with intent to deliver (PWID) with a firearm in close proximity was unconstitutional.
The Constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s old mandatory sentence for selling drugs in a designated School Zone, meaning within 1,000 feet of a school, has also become a subject of debate. Several Pennsylvania Courts of Common Pleas have found the underlying statute, 18 Pa. C.S. § 6317 (Drug-Free School Zones), to be in violation of the Constitution. The statue provides that “there shall be no authority for a court to impose on a defendant… a lesser sentence than provided for in subsection (a), to place the defendant on probation or to suspend sentence.”
PCRA Petitions: The Post Conviction Relief Act
Alleyne also led to another significant development: retroactive relief for individuals who were previously convicted and given sentences which were later deemed unconstitutional. If one of your loved ones received an unconstitutional minimum sentence, he or she may now be able to obtain relief by filing something called a PCRA Petition (Post Conviction Relief Act). If the individual is granted PCRA relief, he or she can subsequently be given a new trial. This process can be highly complex, and petitioners are strongly advised to seek representation from an experienced criminal defense attorney.
While progress is being made, the subject remains divisive and Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimums have not been wholly eliminated. The following represent just a few examples of some of Pennsylvania’s mandatory sentencing provisions:
- Aggravated Assault — 2 – 5 years
- First Degree Murder — Death, life imprisonment
- Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercourse (IDSI) — 5 – 10 years
- Rape — 5 – 10 years
- Second Degree Murder — Life imprisonment
- Theft by Deception — 1 year
Mandatory minimums are ultimately controlled by the District Attorney, who may or may not decide not to impose them depending on factors like whether the defendant was cooperative with law enforcement or is willing to accept a plea bargain. If the District Attorney does decide to impose the minimum, the judge’s hands are tied. The judge may extend the sentence, but cannot reduce it to be shorter than the minimum.
Just under half of all U.S. states use mandatory minimums, including nearby Ohio, New York, and New Jersey. The federal government also uses mandatory minimum sentencing laws, many of which are related to weapons possession, drug crimes, violent crimes, sex crimes, and crimes against children and minors.
Our Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Lawyers Can Help
If you’ve been charged with a felony or misdemeanor in Pennsylvania, you need help from an aggressive Burlington County criminal defense attorney who can protect your legal rights and fight the allegations against you. To set up a free and confidential case evaluation, call the law offices of Young, Marr, Mallis & Associates today at (609) 755-3115 in New Jersey or (215) 701-6519 in Pennsylvania.