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Criminal Law in Pennsylvania: Just how bad is it?

On Behalf of | Nov 1, 2013 | Criminal Law

Criminal Law in Pennsylvania – Just how bad is it?

One of the first questions our criminal defense clients ask is “how much trouble am I in?” The answer to this depends on a variety of factors, such as how many prior offenses they have committed, what their intent was when they committed the act, whether it was an accident or it was intentional, whether property was damaged, whether someone was injured, the age of the victim and so on. The most crucial factor, however, is the statutory class or “grade” of offense the individual is charged with or convicted of.

In Pennsylvania, there are three major categories of offenses. From least to most severe, they are summary, misdemeanor and felony. Within the misdemeanor and felony categories, there are three levels of offenses. The penalty imposed will vary based on, in addition to other factors, the severity of the offense charged. For each grade, there is a maximum penalty that can be imposed. It goes without saying that all crimes are severe. This table simply provides a way to understand the seriousness of the crime in relation to other offenses.

Here’s how you can look at it:


Grade of Offense

Maximum Penalty

Least Severe


90 days incarceration

$300 fine


Misdemeanor 3 (M-3)

1 year incarceration


Misdemeanor 2 (M-2)

2 years incarceration


Misdemeanor 1 (M-1)

5 years incarceration


Felony 3 (F-3)

7 years incarceration


Felony 2 (F-2)

10 years incarceration

Most Severe

Felony 1 (F-1)

20 years incarceration

Just because there are maximum penalties, does not mean that each person convicted of a crime will serve the maximum sentence. An individual convicted of a Felony 2 offense may only serve 2 years, when the maximum sentence is ten years.

Some crimes in Pennsylvania carry a mandatory minimum sentence. For example, a defendant who is convicted of their third DUI offense and whose blood alcohol content was .16 or above, will face a mandatory minimum sentence of 1 year in a state prison facility.

Often on the news you hear about a defendant who is sentenced to 44 years in prison. If the maximum penalty for a felony charge is 20 years, how can this be? The answer is that there are likely other offenses included with the felony charge.

What types of offenses fit into what categories in PA Criminal Law?

Summary Offenses are the least severe of all possible crimes. Examples include, generally, disorderly conduct, public intoxication, underage drinking and providing alcohol and/or tobacco to minors.

Misdemeanors, as we now know, fall into three categories. There are a wide variety of misdemeanor offenses that are misdemeanors in Pennsylvania. Misdemeanors range from desecration of the flag to reckless endangerment, to bigamy, unauthorized gambling, simple assault, DUIs and involuntary manslaughter.

Some crimes can vary so much based on each case that they can be classified as either a misdemeanor or a felony. These are crimes such as arson, theft, conveying contraband to incarcerated inmates, witness intimidation, prostitution and firearms offenses.

Felonies are the most serious offenses. The victims in felony cases suffer death, serious bodily harm or, in the most mild of felony cases, a threat of serious bodily harm. When the felony offense relates to property, the victim has suffered a staggering loss, upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. Felony offenses include murder, rape and other sexual assault charges, robbery, corrupt organizations and kidnapping minors. The names of these charges alone are enough to illustrate the severity of felony crimes.

Each criminal case is unique. In addition to the grade of the offense, the defendant’s criminal history, the chain of events, and innumerable other facts and circumstances give the answer to “how serious is it?” If you have criminal charges pending, call our Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Lawyers to discuss your case.

An exhaustive list of sentencing guidelines is available here