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Texting and driving jail time could rise in Pennsylvania

| Thursday, May 18, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

Motorists convicted of vehicular homicide while texting could spend more time in prison under a proposed change to the state's sentencing guidelines pitched Thursday at a public hearing in Greensburg.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing is expected to make a series of recommendations this year to state lawmakers that will toughen potential penalties for some offenses and create a risk assessment tool for judges to use when determining how long defendants are jailed.

“The objective is to identify the high-risk and low-risk cases,” Commission director Mark Bergstrom said.

Thursday's public hearing at the Westmoreland County Courthouse was the second of five sessions planned throughout Pennsylvania. Another hearing will be conducted Friday in Pittsburgh with future sessions planned for Philadelphia and Harrisburg. A hearing was conducted Wednesday in Blair County.

Several lawyers and prosecutors, as well as some court staff, attended the Greensburg hearing. No public comments were submitted.

If approved by lawmakers, the enhanced penalties would go into effect in January with the risk assessments to be implemented in July 2018.

Revisions will impact four specific crimes: home invasions, vehicular homicide, aggravated assault by a vehicle and illegal possession of firearms.

The changes provide stricter sentences in cases where a defendant convicted of a home invasion had prior contact with a victim; and those convicted of vehicular homicide or aggravated assault while driving could receive longer jail terms if it is determined that texting caused the crash. Sentences also could be enhanced for defendants convicted multiple times for illegal possession of a firearm.

Tim Andrews, president of the Westmoreland County Bar Association and a criminal defense lawyer, said it is unclear as to how stricter sentences will impact defendants.

“I have concerns about how they will be applied,” Andrews said.

Meanwhile, the sentencing commission put the finishing touches on a seven-year project to craft a scale judges can use to assess recidivism risks for defendants.

Bergstrom said the scale will offer judges personalized information about defendants and will used as part of the sentencing process.

“They will still have wide discretion. These are advisory, but the hope is judges see a benefit of having guidelines and more information available to them,” Bergstrom said.

Those risk assessments would be performed in cases where defendants plead guilty to charges without having an agreed upon sentence in place as well as convictions that result from jury and nonjury trials.

Cases where drunken driving charges are the most serious offenses will be exempt from risk assessments.

Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court Judge Rita Hathaway, who serves as a member of the sentencing commission, said the risk assessment will not be a major change for local judges, who in most cases review presentence investigations done by the probation officers before penalties in criminal cases are imposed.

“I look at it as just another tool during sentencing,” Hathaway said.

Bergstrom said judges in some counties don't rely heavily on presentence investigations so the risk assessment scale will offer a uniform way for defendants throughout the state to be viewed using the same criteria.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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