The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing October Monthly Update

The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing (PCS) recently sent out their October Monthly Update, below is the update. To learn more about PCS visit their website here.

Recent Actions: September Commission Meeting

Following four public hearings to receive comment on proposed guidelines, the Commission voted on September 10, 2020 to adopt with minor changes Amendment 6 to the 7th Edition sentencing guidelines and Amendment 1 to the resentencing guidelines. The adopted amendments were published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin on September 26, 2020, beginning a 90-day review period by the General Assembly. While several who testified expressed concern that the Commission missed an opportunity to reduce the prior record scores for those with stale records, the limited purpose of the amendments was to implement time-sensitive changes required by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI-II) legislation. The Commission remains committed to completing a comprehensive rebuilding of the sentencing guidelines (8th Edition), with particular focus on adjustments to the prior record score, and the impact of criminal history on sentencing.  

During the same meeting, the Commission tabled action on the proposed state parole guidelines and state parole recommitment ranges. As these are initial guidelines, the Commission wanted to carefully consider several issues raised during public hearings, including testimony received during a hearing held at SCI-Benner Township and linked to three other correctional facilities. The Commission will reconsider these parole proposals and any suggested modification during its December 10, 2020 meeting.

Earlier this summer, Commission members called for action to address racial injustice and to increase diversity. During the September meeting, staff reported on initial responses, including: discussions with administrators and faculty members from Pennsylvania’s HBCU schools, Cheyney University and Lincoln University, to investigate opportunities for collaboration; conversations with Penn State and other partners concerning concrete steps to be taken to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in staffing, policy discussions and research projects; establishment of an Academic Review Panel to study the initial framework of the 8th Edition sentencing guidelines, including consideration of racial impact; and providing additional detail in annual report tables and in analysis conducted by the Commission on race/ethnicity and gender and supporting research in these areas. The Commission will continue to work with impacted communities and individuals to address concerns of racial injustice in sentencing and parole guidelines.

Publications and Research

Research Partnerships: Commission staff continue to foster research partnerships with academic institutions in the Commonwealth and with other state agencies. Over the past few months staff have provided sentencing data and research support to academic partners at Drexel University, the University of Pittsburgh, and The Pennsylvania State University (PSU). Additionally, the Research and Data Analysis Unit continued collaborative research efforts with the Pennsylvania Parole Board and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. In the upcoming quarter, Commission staff plan to host a series of meetings with academic partners in the Commonwealth and across the country to review and refine the sentencing guidelines’ prior record score and consider racial impact as part of the development of the 8th Edition Sentencing Guidelines. 

PSU students and post-docs: This Fall, as part of its ongoing MOU with PSU, the Commission will support a post-doctoral scholar in sentencing, two Ph.D. level Criminology Department graduate students, and at least one undergraduate intern. This past summer, the Commission hosted an intern from the recently established Master’s in Public Policy Program at PSU. In addition, the Commission—in conjunction with the Criminal Justice Research Center and Department of Sociology and Criminology at The Pennsylvania State University—are actively recruiting for a new postdoctoral scholar in sentencing. The postdoc will collaborate with Commission staff on research related to disparities in the criminal justice system, particularly as they relate to race/ethnicity, the calculation of prior criminal record score, and, pretrial release, sentencing, resentencing, recommitment and parole decisions.

Recent Reports: Commission staff in the Research and Data Analysis Unit recently completed two comprehensive evaluations. The first was an evaluation of the now defunct sentencing alternative-the State Intermediate Punishment Program (replaced by the Department of Corrections State Drug Treatment Program). This evaluation, and prior evaluations, demonstrate that the SIP program is effective. Offenders who successfully completed the SIP program were significantly less likely to recidivate within three years than a matched sample of eligible offenders who were sentenced to prison. The second evaluation, The Role of Substance Use in Probation Outcomes, focused on the relationship between substance use and resentencing for individuals under community corrections supervision. The results show that individuals who are substance-involved are more likely to be revoked, especially for technical violations. This report clearly underlines the need for use of risk-needs-responsivity assessments across the justice system, including use at resentencing hearings.

Future Edition of the Guidelines

Since they were first implemented in 1982, Pennsylvania’s sentencing guidelines have become increasingly complicated, with revisions occurring nearly every year to keep pace with legislative mandates. In an effort to streamline, simplify and update the guidelines, the Commission began a comprehensive review in 2014. Through the establishment of a Strategic Planning Work Group, the Commission engaged statewide criminal justice stakeholders in a full external review of the guidelines. The Commission next empaneled three sub-committees to review the work group recommendations, addressing offense-related issues, offender-related factors, and sentencing policies.  

The resulting framework addressed a number of issues subsequently raised by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI-II), including: review of factors considered in adopting the guidelines; modifications to criminal history to better address risk to reoffend and substantial risk to public safety; and greater targeting of the use of specific sentencing options, including the intensity and duration of probation. Other issues to be addressed include racial impact and the consideration of evidence-based practices to recommend the most effective use of institutional and community correctional resources. 

While the regular amendments to the guidelines were responsive to changes enacted in statute, the development of the 8th Edition Sentencing Guidelines allows the Commission to address broader goals, including the alignment of existing policies involving risk assessment, resentencing guidelines and parole guidelines, and the building of an offender-based information system that supports better decision-making and better outcomes.