Penn Law students help reform state criminal law

Penn Law Criminal Law Research Group

At the request of the Pennsylvania House and Senate Judiciary Committees, students in Penn Law’s Criminal Law Research Group seminar traveled to Harrisburg on Dec. 15 to advise lawmakers on making the state's criminal penalties fit more rationally with criminal offenses. Their recommendations, presented to a joint session of the state’s Senate and House Judiciary Committees, will assist in revising the state's criminal code.

Professor Paul Robinson and his students were asked earlier this year to study to how criminal offenses are graded in Pennsylvania and whether the punishments fit the crimes. What they discovered is that Pennsylvania’s criminal law commonly contains irrational and contradictory penalties, in which less serious offenses are treated more harshly than more serious offenses.

“Our goal was to make it clear that there is a problem, and it’s significant, and you can’t ignore it,” Robinson says.

For instance, under current law, reading another person's email is graded as if it were similar in seriousness to robbery, a 3rd degree felony, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. But a survey conducted by Robinson and his students found that Pennsylvania residents rate reading another person's email more on the level of an annoyance similar to bothering another person with no legitimate purpose, a summary offense, which carries a maximum sentence of 90 days.
“It’s important to have a criminal code that reflects what Pennsylvanians think the law should be,” says Matthew Majarian, a Penn Law student. “If the law accords with what people think, they are more inclined to comply with it.”

The detailed report presented by the Criminal Law Research Group can be found here: http://www.law.upenn.edu/cf/clrg/painfo.html.

Originally published on December 17, 2009