Excessive Sentencing Project - Pennsylvania

Policies and rulings on lengthy imprisonment terms in Pennsylvania.

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  • Pennsylvania has two- and three-strikes laws that mandate minimum terms of 10 and 25 years, respectively, for certain second- and third-time offenders. 
State Constitution

Art. 1, § 13. Bail, fines and punishments: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel punishments inflicted.

Sentencing Statutes

Sentencing guidelines: The state mandates that judges consider advisory sentencing guidelines in imposing punishment.  

42 Pa.C.S.A. § 2154.

Mandatory minimums for offenses committed with firearms: The state mandates a minimum sentence of five years for any crime of violence committed with a firearm or replica firearm. 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9712. 

Mandatory life in prison: The state mandates life in prison for anyone convicted of murder who has previously been convicted of murder or voluntary manslaughter in Pennsylvania, or an equivalent crime outside of the state.  

42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9715.

Two-strikes law: The state mandates a sentence of at least 10 years when an offender is convicted of a crime of violence when he has a prior conviction for a crime of violence on his record. 

42 Pa.C.S.A. §9714.

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Three-strikes law: The state mandates a sentence of at least 25 years when an offender has previously been convicted of two or more crimes of violence arising from separate transactions. 

42 Pa.C.S.A. §9714.

Case Law

General 

In order to secure appellate review of a sentencing decision, an appellant must show that there is a “substantial question whether the sentence imposed is appropriate under the Sentencing Code.” Commonwealth v. Rodda, 723 A.2d 212 (Pa.Super. 1999). A substantial question is one “where an appellant advances a colorable argument that the trial court’s actions are inconsistent with a specific provision of the Sentencing Code or contrary to the fundamental norms which underlie the sentencing process;” this includes when a court fails to state sufficiently its reasons for imposing sentences outside the guidelines. Rodda at 214.

The standard for appeal of a sentence is manifest abuse of discretion. Commonwealth v. Johnson, 446 Pa.Super. 192, 197 (1995). 

A judge must put his or her reasoning on the record when handing down sentence outside of the guideline ranges. Commonwealth v. Dutter, 420 Pa.Super. 565 (1992). The reasons given must be “adequate”—the court must consider the guidelines before sentencing and state reasons for why a deviation is necessary. Commonwealth v. Chesson, 353 Pa.Super. 255, 258 (1986).

Proportionality 

The state constitution does not provide broader protection than the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments to the United States constitution. Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 73 (1982). The state constitution is coextensive with the federal constitution in regards to proportionality analysis. Commonwealth v. Cottam, 420 Pa.Super. 311, 341 (1992).

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Successful challenges to a criminal penalty are extremely rare when the penalty is something other than capital punishment. Commonwealth v. Yasipour, 957 A.2d 734, 743 (Pa.Super. 2008).

Courts grant the legislature substantial deference in setting the types and limits of punishments. Commonwealth v. Strunk, 400 Pa.Super. 25 (1990). A sentence will not be found cruel and unusual unless it offends “evolving standards of decency or a balanced sense of justice. Strunk, 400 Pa.Super. at 37.

Determinations regarding the appropriateness of individualized sentencing (in non-capital cases) are left to the province of the legislature. Commonwealth v. Waters, 334 Pa.Super. 513 (1984)(upholding mandatory life without parole sentence for first degree murder).

Leading Court Discussions of Graham and Miller 

Com. v. Batts, 620 Pa. 115, 66 A.3d 286 (March 26, 2013) (Pennsylvania’s new sentencing statute under Miller applies only to minors convicted of murder on and after the date Miller was issued; court must consider other individualize factors under the statute; juvenile defendants pending in direct review are subject to a mandatory maximum sentence of life imprisonment as required by statute, accompanied by a minimum sentence determined by the common pleas court upon resentencing) 

Com. v. Cunningham, 81 A.3d 1 (Pa. October 10, 2013) (Miller's prohibition against mandatory life-without-parole sentencing for juvenile offenders did not apply retroactively.) 

Severe Sentences 

Court upheld sentence of life in prison for attempted rape of a child; defendant was sentenced as a third-strike offender. Commonwealth v. Helsel, 53 A.3d 906 (Pa.Super. 2012).