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First-time Burglary Offender Eligible for Pennsylvania DOC’s Recidivism Program

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that a first-time offender convicted of burglary was entitled to participate in the Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive (RRRI) Act.

The decision came in an appeal filed by Sean Cullen-Doyle, who pleaded guilty to several counts of criminal conspiracy to commit first-degree felony burglary and one count of first-degree felony burglary. The common pleas court found him ineligible for sentencing under the RRRI Act and ordered him to serve three-to-six years on the burglary charge plus 15 years of probation on the conspiracy counts.

In denying a post-sentencing motion, the common pleas court held burglary was a crime of violence and Cullen-Doyle’s prior first-degree burglary conviction rendered him ineligible for sentencing under the RRRI Act. On appeal, the Commonwealth admitted that it could not find any indication of such a prior conviction. The Superior Court, however, held that Cullen-Doyle’s present burglary conviction disqualified him from the RRRI Act.

The statute, enacted in 2009, was “intended to encourage eligible offenders to complete Department of Corrections programs that are designed to reduce recidivism.” Prisoners who are eligible and volunteer to participate are entitled to a reduced sentence; eligibility is conditioned, in relevant part, on the absence of a “history of present or past violent behavior.”

The Commonwealth agreed that the concept of “present history” in the statutory language was unusual, and on July 20, 2017 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held the eligibility clause was “materially ambiguous.” In discerning legislative intent, the Court said that “[a]lthough the enactment does not contain any language expressly relating to first-time offender or penalizing recidivism as such, a commonly accepted corollary to the [RRRI] Act’s express purpose of reducing recidivism is that first-time offenders are usually more amenable to reform than inmates who have persisted in criminal conduct.”

The word “history” exhibited an intent to render ineligible those with “an established record or pattern” of violent behavior. Thus, it could be inferred the legislature intended “to offer greater reform opportunities for first-time offenders than for repeat offenders.” Further, “to the extent doubt remains concerning the proper interpretation of the language, the rule of lenity bolsters the conclusion that [Cullen-Doyle’s] single, present conviction for a violent crime does not constitute a history of violent behavior.”

Accordingly, the Superior Court’s order was vacated and the case remanded to determine if Cullen-Doyle in fact had a disqualifying prior offense for purposes of the RRRI Act. One justice issued a dissenting opinion. See: Pennsylvania v. Cullen-Doyle, 164 A.3d 1239 (Pa. 2017). 

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Related legal case

Pennsylvania v. Cullen-Doyle