Pennsylvania organizes crimes into three categories: felony, misdemeanor, and summary. Felonies and misdemeanors are further classified into three degrees based on their severity. The categorization of a specific crime is not always certain because it may be affected by the seriousness of the offense, the accused’s prior record, and the facts surrounding the incident.
Felonies are the most serious crimes and have the longest prison terms. A felony of the first degree carries with it a maximum twenty-year prison sentence (with the exception of murder in the first degree—life without parole or death if applicable; second degree murder—life, and third degree murder—forty years. A felony of the second degree carries a maximum term of ten years, and a felony of the third degree or an ungraded felony has a maximum sentence of seven years.
While some states classify misdemeanors as crimes with a maximum prison sentence of one year in a county jail, Pennsylvania law allows punishments for misdemeanors to exceed one year. Misdemeanors of the first degree carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Misdemeanors of the second degree have a maximum prison term of two years, and misdemeanors of the third degree have a maximum one-year sentence. Common misdemeanor offenses are simple assault, theft ($200 to $2,000), driving under the influence offenses, and drug possession charges.
The least-serious classification in Pennsylvania cover summary offenses; these include crimes such as disorderly conduct, underage drinking, and traffic offenses. While receiving a term of imprisonment in these matters is highly unlikely, there is a maximum term of ninety days in a county jail.
If you are charged with a crime, it is important that your attorney explain the elements of the offense, the classification of the crime (felony, misdemeanor, or summary), and the maximum penalty associated with a possible conviction which some may call your exposure. While there are obviously different degrees of criminal charges and consequences associated with those degrees, if you are convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor offense, you will end up with a criminal record.
While other states may differ, Pennsylvania does not permit an expungement, a permanent “sealing” of felony or misdemeanor convictions, and only a pardon from the governor can erase it. The pardon process is far beyond the scope of this book, but it normally takes years and requires a substantial amount of legal expense and time.
A criminal record can negatively affect professional advancement or educational opportunities. You should therefore never treat even a minor criminal charge as an inconvenience and seek the path of least resistance often presented by the government through the form of a plea offer. You must understand the long-term consequences associated with criminal allegations. Many of our clients are often shocked to learn that there is a conviction on their records we can’t assist them with because of a poor decision they made years ago and forgot about. The burden of proof is always on the prosecution, but the burden to minimize the negative consequences of criminal offenses is on you!