Skip to main content

Examining Criminal Sentencing in Pennsylvania


At Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, learning goes beyond the traditional classroom. From clinics to individual service projects, students are encouraged to apply what they’ve learned in their academic studies to the real world around them.

This spring, 12 students had the unique opportunity to learn, interact and even debate with sitting Pennsylvania Common Pleas judges, members of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole and prosecution and defense attorneys at the 14th Annual Villanova Sentencing Workshop. Each year, participants in the workshop discuss the complexities of real-life criminal sentencing and sentencing policy through the lens of pre-screened and redacted cases that judges found difficult to sentence.

After reading voluminous materials, often including such documents as police reports and court transcripts, all the participants prepare sentencing orders in advance of the workshop sessions. For two weekends in the spring semester, the students, judges and other legal professionals then meet to discuss those cases from multiple angles. Each weekend, the group also hears a presentation from leading criminal justice experts. In April, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel joined the workshop for dinner and to share his perspective. It’s a learning experience for all.

“Not only do the students have the chance to interact with and learn from sitting judges, but the judges often remark how much they’ve learned from each other and the students,” said Steven L. Chanenson, Professor of Law and director and founder of the workshop. “Students pose questions that people who have been immersed in the legal system for years wouldn’t ask, prompting the more experienced participants to reexamine their own long-held assumptions.”

Chanenson leads the workshop discussions along with Mark Bergstrom, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing and Adjunct Professor at Villanova Law. A leader in the field of criminal sentencing, Chanenson was a Member of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing for nearly 14 years, having been appointed by three successive governors of Pennsylvania. He was the elected Chair of the Commission from 2012 to 2015.

The Villanova Sentencing Workshop is hosted in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing and the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts. Modeled after programs at Yale Law School and University of Minnesota Law School, the Villanova Sentencing Workshop debuted in spring 2003 and focuses specifically on sentencing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

To learn more about Villanova Law’s courses and opportunities in criminal practice, click here.