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Last month, a Penn School of Law study found discrepancies between what citizens believe a penalty for an offense would be and what Pennsylvania code advises the actual penalty should be.

Law Professor Paul Robinson and students in Penn Law’s Criminal Law Research Group discovered the differences after completing a survey of Pennsylvania residents’ expected penalties for criminal offenses.

They found that in nearly a hundred instances there are significant disparities between Pennsylvanians’ expectations and the legal grading.

The research group, commissioned by Pennsylvania State Senator Stewart Greenleaf, presented the results of the study to a joint session of the Pa. House and Senate Judiciary Committees in December.

Among the report’s examples of the inconsistencies between residents’ grading and the legal code’s grading of offenses is the issue of slavery.

Keeping an adult as a slave — a first degree misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of five years — is as serious to Pa. residents as a first degree felony, which has a maximum sentence of 20 years.

“A one grade difference is quite dramatic,” Robinson explained. “The law might happen to set twice the maximum penalty level that the community thinks it should be.”

According to Penn Law student and CLRG member Thomas Gaeta, such disparities can result in a disrespect for the law. Gaeta speculated that higher penalties may deter residents from reporting criminal behavior.

“If you are walking down the street and you see someone beating their child, if you know that the punishment is incredibly high, then you are less likely to report it,” he said.

What’s striking, noted Robinson, was that the study found “dozens and dozens” of instances that, according to residents’ perceptions of various offenses, the corresponding legal sanction was off by two degrees.

Gaeta added that as of now, the amount Pa. spends on prison costs alone totals 100 dollars per inmate daily. Reducing prison costs while improving the way in which the criminal law administers punishment would be a clear “win-win,” he said.

He also attributed present inconsistencies between sentences across the state to the legislature allowing judges more authority in grading offences. Judges are authorized to issue any sentence, provided it does not exceed the maximum.

“[The judge] gets to decide what the actual grade of [a] crime is,” he explained. “Different judges will have different judgments — the amount of time you’re going to serve for [a given offense] depends as much on what you’ve done as on which judge you draw.”

Greenleaf expressed interest in adjusting the sensitivity of legislation in regards to how offenses relate to each other.

“[The report] will hopefully moderate the actions of legislature in the future,” he said. “There’s going to be an overall changing of attitude about legislature and the report has helped to [accomplish] that.”

The CLRG’s full report can be found on its web site.

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