In Commonwealth v. Cullen-Doyle, 16 WAP 2016 (July 20,2017) the Pennsylvania Supreme Court clarified an eligibility requirement for the Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive (“RRRI”) program. This program, which enables certain non-violent criminal offenders who are sentenced to Pennsylvania Department of Corrections facilities to reduce their minimum sentence, requires that an offender lack a “history of present or past violent behavior.” In Cullen-Doyle, the defendant had no criminal history prior to his guilty plea to a single count of burglary. While the defendant acknowledged that his present crime was a violent offense, he argued that one violent conviction does not demonstrate a history of violent behavior.
The question of whether the defendant’s burglary conviction precluded him from RRRI participation eventually reached the Pennsylvania Supreme Court who attempted to ascertain the state legislature’s intent when they enacting the RRRI law. In doing so, the Court first noted that the stated purpose of the act – to encourage inmates who are capable of reform to participate in programs that tend to reduce recidivism – supported the defendant’s position because first-time offenders are generally more amenable to reform than repeat offenders. The Court also reasoned that disqualifying every individual with a single instance of “violence” would preclude many individuals who could benefit from the program. If the legislature had intended such a stringent requirement of RRRI participants, it would likely have articulated that intent in the statute. Finally, the Court noted that the statute listed several enumerated offenses which disqualify a defendant from the RRRI program and burglary was not on that list. This too suggests that the legislature must not have intended for one act of violence to disqualify an individual from the program.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that a single, present conviction for a violent crime does not constitute a history of violent behavior for purposes of RRRI eligibility. The defendant’s case was remanded so that the sentencing court could once again consider giving him the opportunity to participate in the RRRI program.