Submitted to Pa4liberty by Andrew Hatstat
Liberty scored a win in 2014 and 2015 when the Pennsylvania Superior and Supreme Courts ruled in a series of cases that Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws were unconstitutional. Since then, Pennsylvania effectively has had no mandatory minimum sentencing laws in place. Amazingly, without mandatory minimums, the Commonwealth did not descend into crime and chaos. In fact, just the opposite occurred. Since those rulings, crime in PA continued its steady decline and the prison population continued to decrease from its peak in 2012. Studies inside and outside the Commonwealth have confirmed that mandatory minimum sentences don’t serve as a deterrent to crime. This sounds like good news all around. So, what’s the problem?
Law Enforcement Likes Mandatory Minimums
Without the threat of a lengthy mandatory minimum sentence, prosecutors lost significant leverage when negotiating with accused criminals to make a deal. In this Newsworks article, John Delaney, deputy in the Philadelphia district attorney office explains, "Without the mandatory-minimum sentencing statutes, we know there's a fairly low chance that we will get what had been the mandatory after a trial." Think about that for a second. Delaney also remarks, "The absence of mandatory minimums has resulted in lower offers from us on any number of cases." One can only conclude that when mandatory minimums were in effect, many people were being imprisoned longer than Judge thought was appropriate based on the facts presented at the trial. Without mandatory minimum sentences, the District Attorney’s lost power to impose their will on accused criminals. Apparently, they didn’t like that.
At the urging of the District Attorney’s from Montgomery, Delaware, and Berks Counties, State Representative and former prosecutor Todd Stephens sponsored PA House Bill 741 to bring back mandatory minimums. The bill restores minimum sentences for a broad range of offenses from selling pot to violent crimes against the elderly. According to Stephens, his bill “is supported not just by the DA's Association but also the PA Chiefs of Police Association, the FOP, the State Troopers Association and the PA Victim Advocate.” Go Figure.
Stephens is selling the bill as being tough on violent crime. “Most people I've heard from in our community support tough sentences for those who commit violent crimes (rape) against children and the elderly and those who use firearms to commit violent crimes.” But prosecutors seem to be zeroing in on its use in the drug war. In this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette piece, three District Attorney’s from Western PA are interviewed and all three agreed that the minimums would be used to target drug traffickers. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. wants leverage to “move up the chain”. Hasn’t the failed drug war cost us enough already? Maybe it’s time to try a different approach.
One particularly concerning part of the bill covers selling drugs in a “Drug Free School Zone”. These zones include wide areas around all schools and universities. Unlike other areas, there are no exceptions made for the type or amount of drug sold inside the school zone. This effectively puts all college students at risk for a 2-year mandatory minimum sentence for selling their roommate a joint, even in an off-campus apartment. Another disturbing point is that Drug Free School Zones disproportionately cover dense urban areas with large minority populations.
Although I could not find a drug free school zone map of any Pennsylvania city, I did find one for neighboring Camden New Jersey. New Jersey has a similar definition of a drug free school zone as Pennsylvania (within 1000 ft. around any school or university). Take a look at this map from the 2005 New Jersey’s Drug Free Zone Crimes and Proposal for Reform.
Nearly half the city is a Drug Free School Zone. It’s not hard to imagine Philadelphia or Pittsburgh looking much different. Is this what the land of the free looks like?
What Can We Do?
Spread the word on social media that mandatory minimums are unjust and unneeded.
Call your State Representative and urge them not to support HB 741.
Vote for Libertarians in the next election. Better yet, run for office yourself.