Pennsylvania's 2014 Mandatory Sentencing Law

The Pennsylvania courts are taking back control of criminal sentencing procedure. Beginning in October 2014, the Pennsylvania Superior Court began chipping away at legislative mandated mandatory minimum sentences. This was in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's reinstating federal district courts' sentencing authority in two separate be equally important ways.

Back in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Booker that all sentencing guideline provisions are advisory, not mandatory. This reinstated federal judges' discretion in sentencing decisions.

Later in U.S. vs. Alleyne, the Supreme Court determined that state legislatures' mandatory minimum sentences were unconstitutional under the Sixth Amendment due process provision because they allowed judges to increase a defendant's potential jail sentence based upon facts not considered by a jury.

Following these two constitutionally instructive decisions, the Pennsylvania Superior Court began reasserting it's judicial authority. In two separate cases, defendants appealed their drug convictions' mandatory minimum sentencing based upon Alleyne. The Superior Court accepted the defendants' arguments regarding the illegality of their sentences and found Pennsylvania's mandatory minimum sentencing procedures unconstitutional because they allowed judges to sentence a defendant to increased jail time (the mandatory minimum sentence) based upon facts not decided by a jury.

Pennsylvania's Superior and Supreme Court, rejecting the appeals, ruled that, under the federal constitution, the Pennsylvania legislature did not have the authority to tell judges to engage in such conduct. The courts took back that authority by ruling that the legislature could not tell a judge the minimum amount of time to which he or she had to sentence a defendant based on certain fact patterns.

In the fall of 2014, the Superior Court reviewed the legislature's ability to unilaterally alter a convicted felon's sex offender registration scheme by amending the registration scheme statute in effect at the time of the plea agreement. The Superior Court, in two cases known as Commonwealth v. Hainesworth and Commonwealth v. Nase, ruled the legislature could not engage in this conduct.

These two cases show the courts chipping away at legislative intrusion into judicial sentencing prerogatives in the context of Megan's Law registration requirements for sex offenders. In these cases, the courts determine that the guilty plea agreement, a contract, precluded the legislature from unilaterally altering a defendant's registration characterization and reporting responsibilities.

Finally, on December 28, 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Pennsylvania's Megan's Law unconstitutional when applied to juveniles. The Supreme Court held that Megan's Law in its entirety, as it is applied to juveniles, was inconsistent with the rehabilitative nature of juvenile court, and therefore unconstitutional when applied to juvenile offenders.

The Supreme Court reasserted its sentencing authority over legislative prerogative in determining the correct goal of juvenile adjudications — and the juvenile court process is rehabilitation, not lifetime punishment required by SORNA's juvenile lifetime registration requirement.

These cases focus on the judiciary being the primary arbiter of the sentencing procedures it applies. Importantly, in both federal and state courts the pendulum is beginning to swing back (because the judiciary is pulling it back) towards judicial discretion and against legislative mandated procedures.

The courts are beginning to realize that every defendant is different and a one-size-fits-all sentencing procedures are inappropriate in many cases.

Read Attorney Richard Hark's blog post, "The Pendulum Swings (Is Pulled) Back to the Courts from the Legislature."

Contact Hark and Hark for a Free Consultation With a Lawyer

Courts are pushing back against mandatory minimum sentences. For a free initial consultation about your case, contact Hark and Hark online or call our 24-hour criminal defense hotline at 1-877-4-HARK-LAW (1-877-442-7552).

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