For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 29

probation offices eliminated in-office appointments.
This led to a significant decrease in urinalysis testing.
For public defenders and members of the defense
bar, the pandemic has created many challenges and
forced attorneys to embrace new ways of handling
their caseloads. Specifically, investigators and attorneys
are limiting their home visits and interviews with
witnesses are often occurring by telephone.5 Attorneys
have also had to adapt to preliminary arraignments
and preliminary hearings being conducted by
Zoom, creating challenges in how they interact and
communicate with their clients. At the start of the
pandemic, many defense attorneys were prevented
from entering county jails and interviews with clients
were conducted by telephone. In some jurisdictions,
attorneys are now able to return to the jails but still
primarily rely on non-contact visits. While allowing for
court business to continue, this new way of interacting
may negatively impact attorneys' ability to build trust
and rapport with their clients.
As summer turns to fall, courts have begun to return
to " normal " operations. Jury trials have resumed, and
courts have once again started to hold broader sets of
court hearings and activities (e.g., sentencing hearings).
Up to this point, much of what we know about the
impact of COVID-19 on the handling and adjudication
of cases is based upon experiences in our own
jurisdiction or from anecdotes from colleagues in other
counties. This article presents a first look at a statewide,
data-based perspective of the impact of COVID-19 on
a downstream part of the criminal process, sentencing
and resentencing. The analysis relies on sentencing
and resentencing data, from January 2019 through
July 2020, reported by counties to the Pennsylvania
Commission on Sentencing.

Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing
The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing (PCS)
is a legislative agency charged to create and maintain
a consistent and rational statewide sentencing policy
through the adoption of sentencing and resentencing
guidelines that promote fairer and more uniform
sentencing throughout the Commonwealth. The
Commission serves as a clearinghouse and information
center for the collection, preparation, and dissemination
of information on Commonwealth sentencing
practices, and with assisting courts and agencies in the
development, maintenance, and coordination of sound
sentencing policies.6 The Commission is also responsible
for the development, implementation, monitoring, and
reporting of fines guidelines, sentence risk assessment,
county and state parole guidelines, state parole
recommitment ranges, pre-trial domestic violence risk
assessment, and probation guidelines.7
Prior to sentencing, Sentencing Guideline Forms
are completed by the court, or a designated office, to

determine the recommended minimum sentence range
using a common starting point based on an offender's
conviction offense and prior criminal history. The court
must consider the Guidelines but may sentence outside
the Sentencing Guidelines if they place the reasons for
departure on the record. County Courts of Common
Pleas provide completed Sentencing Guideline Forms
and actual sentences imposed to the Commission
through its secure online SGS Web application via the
Commonwealth's Justice Network (JNET). The process for
reporting revocations of probation and the subsequent
resentences is the same. The court or designated office
completes the revocation and resentencing module in
SGS Web and submits to the Commission via SGS Web.
Sentencing data provide the foundation for much of
the Commission's work. The submitted sentences are
used to assess judicial conformity to the Sentencing
Guidelines, to inform public policy discussions, estimate
the impact of proposed legislation, and identify
sentencing trends. The Commission also regularly pairs
the sentencing with data from the Pennsylvania State
Police, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts,
the Department of Corrections, and the Pennsylvania
Parole Board. These data are used in research efforts
to develop tools to inform decisions (e.g., pretrial
risk assessment tool, parole guidelines), determine
the effectiveness of sentencing policies (e.g., use and
impact of mandatory minimums), evaluate various
programs (e.g., State Immediate Punishment Program),
and to develop projections for correctional populations.
The sentencing and resentencing data submitted to
the Commission by individual counties provides an
opportunity to examine the impact of the disruption
of COVID-19 on sentencing and resentencing practices.8

A Descriptive Analysis of Sentencing Patterns
Before and During COVID-19
With the closing of courthouses to the public,
the courts' attention and focus shifted to essential
functions, including emergency bail review and
habeas corpus hearings, Gagnon I hearings, bench
warrants, and any other function deemed essential,
consistent with constitutional requirements, by the
President Judge. Sentencing hearings were not deemed
" essential " during the closure.9 As courts began to
reopen, sentencing hearings resumed. The disruption
to sentencing hearings is reflected in the number of
imposed sentences reported to the Commission (see
Exhibit 1). In 2019, there were an average of 4,983
sentences imposed per month. This relatively stable
trend continued through January (5,419 sentences
imposed) and February (4,410 sentences imposed)
2020.10 In March 2020, corresponding with court
closures at the mid-point of the month, the number
of sentences imposed (2,667) was roughly one-half
of the 2019 average. In April, only 717 sentences
were imposed. Beginning in May 2020 the number
of sentences imposed began to rise. And in July, the

Vol. 5, Issue 4 l For The Defense

29



For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4

Contents
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 1
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 2
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - Contents
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 4
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 5
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 6
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 7
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 8
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 9
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 10
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 11
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 12
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 13
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 14
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 15
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 16
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 17
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 18
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 19
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 20
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 21
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 22
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 23
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 24
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 25
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 26
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 27
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 28
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 29
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 30
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 31
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 32
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 33
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 34
For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 35
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For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 37
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For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 50
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For the Defense - Vol. 5, Issue 4 - 52
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