How Does A Prior Arrest Or Conviction Impact My Criminal Case?
Prior arrests or convictions can impact a criminal case to varying degrees, depending on the circumstances. In Pennsylvania, sentencing works on guidelines that are passed by the legislature, and as such, almost every charge is graded from a misdemeanor all the way up to first-degree murder. Every case is given a level of seriousness in terms of a numerical quantity. In Pennsylvania, this is called an offense gravity score. That gravity score can go anywhere from one to 14, with one being the least serious and 14 being criminal homicide.
The other end of the chart is based on your prior record, every prior criminal conviction is given a score on a point system. So, it all depends on the nature of your previous conviction. For example, if you are convicted of aggravated assault, that has one or two points for a conviction. You can imagine it as a chart, with the offense gravity score on one axis (from one to 14) and the prior record scores on the other (from zero to five). There are also categories of prior records that apply to people who have more than three felony convictions or who have repeated violent convictions. For each little block on the chart- from a defense gravity score of one and no prior record score all the way to an offense gravity score of 14- the legislature has issued a range of sentences which the courts have to consider.
Depending on your prior record score, the guidelines for the offense may or may not be increased. DUI charges and certain low-level misdemeanors, such as simple possession of marijuana, only carry half of one point towards your prior record score. So, you don’t go up to the next range on the chart, but your prior record score goes all the way up to one. For example, if the only thing you had in your past was a DUI, then you’re still going to be treated like a first-time offender because it’s only half of one point. So, it all depends on what your prior record is for, but it can and usually does impact your sentence.
Are There Alternative Punishments Available To First-Time Criminal Offenders In Pennsylvania?
Yes, very often there are alternative punishments available to first-time criminal offenders in Pennsylvania. There is a first-time offender program in Pennsylvania called Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, and it is available for most DUIs. It’s also available for certain misdemeanors, but usually not available for felonies. The interesting thing about the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) program is that it is solely within the discretion of the individual county District Attorneys where the offense occurred. It’s been litigated through the appellate courts numerous times. You don’t have a right to it. You have to apply to the district attorney’s office. If the district attorney’s office turns down your request, then you can ask them to reconsider. If they say no a second time, then you have no recourse. Unfortunately, this can be political. It’s usually not, but it can be, depending on the county.
It is a very good program because it allows for the crime to be expunged from the defendant’s permanent criminal record. In most cases when you’re convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor in Pennsylvania, you have a criminal record for life. It will affect your job, whether or not you can get into college, and in some cases, it will affect your ability to become licensed in a certain profession. For example, if you are convicted of underage drinking in college, then you cannot be licensed as a registered nurse or as a teacher in Pennsylvania. There are collateral impacts to criminal convictions. If you successfully complete these programs, it’s like you were never arrested or charged at all, so it’s like it never happened.
In order to complete the program, you basically have to do the same things that anyone else would have to do if they were convicted of the crime. It is almost like you’re on probation; you have to get treatment if you need it, you have to go to counseling if you need it, and you have to jump through all kinds of hoops. In addition, it’s expensive. It generally costs about $2,000 just to go through this program, not including attorney’s fees, fines and other costs.
Alternative punishments or programs for crimes other than DUI are very limited. Different district attorney offices have different criteria, but if it’s anything other than simple possession, then you’re not likely to be offered the ARD program. Many counties now have courts for veterans who get in trouble, whereby they will be offered first-offender programs. So, there are a lot of first-time offender programs for people. It’s mostly ARD in Pennsylvania, but there are a handful of other programs that are out there. Every county is different as to what they offer.
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