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Liberal, conservative groups unite against Pennsylvania mandatory minimums

By   /   March 27, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

A bill to reintroduce mandatory minimums for drug offenses in Pennsylvania is receiving flak from the left and the right.

Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told Watchdog that mandatory minimums are a “one size fits all” policy that makes citizens “pay more for no more safety.”

COME TOGETHER: Many opponents of mandatory minimum prison sentences come from the progressive left, but discussions about the cost and effectiveness of the policies are bringing more conservatives to that side of the debate.

That view has support from both sides of the aisle. The left-leaning Pennsylvania ACLU and right-leaning Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based free-market think tank, oppose the bill. Both groups cite a 2009 study by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, which found the policies to be ineffective. The study suggests neither the length of the sentence nor the imposition of the mandatory minimum punishment affected whether someone repeated a crime.

The study also found that only 34 percent of Pennsylvanians could correctly name at least one offense that garnered a mandatory minimum sentence. Most inmates polled in the study said they received a longer sentence than they expected, showing that many are ignorant of the penalties under the law.

Elizabeth Randall, legislative director for the Pennsylvania ACLU, told Watchdog she thinks mandatory minimums work as a deterrent only if people know the law. She said the state has not gone into “mayhem” or “anarchy” despite doing away with mandatory minimums in mid-2014. In fact, in 2015, crime rates decreased, and violent crimes stayed about the same.

These policies will “dial us backwards,” Randall said, noting many states are going in the opposite direction as H.B.741.  The trend, Randall says, is toward reducing mandatory minimums or even eliminating mandatory minimums for drug offenses.

Against the trend

Nearly 30 states have reformed their mandatory minimum policies to relax the mandates. Over the past two years Maryland and Rhode Island eliminated them entirely for nonviolent drug offenders.

State Rep. Jack Radar, a Republican from Montgomery County, told Watchdog via email that he is skeptical of reinstating mandatory minimums because it takes discretion away from judges. “No two crimes are the same, and mandatory minimums can lead to sentences where the punishment does not fit the crime,” he said.

Ring similarly said some individuals deserve the mandatory minimum, but “others might not.”

Bob Dick, senior policy analyst, at the Commonwealth Foundation, told Watchdog.org that the mandates “failed in the past.” Dick said he thinks the most important reason to oppose mandatory minimum sentencing is because individuals should not be in prison if they are not a threat to society.

‘Wasteful’ and ‘counterproductive’

Dick also claimed that mandatory minimum policies are not fiscally conservative. PennLive reported that reinstating mandatory minimums could cost taxpayers $85.5 million annually. The state is currently trying to fix a $3 billion budget deficit.

Ring called this “wasteful” and “counterproductive.”

But state Rep. Todd Stephens, a Montgomery County Republican who introduced the bill, said “law enforcement asked for this tool.”

Stephens disputes that his bill creates a one-size-fits-all policy since judges can go “much higher” than the minimum. (A judge cannot go below the minimum without an agreement with a prosecutor.) He acknowledged it would increase the prison population at a cost to taxpayers.

The bill is being introduced after a Pennsylvania appellate court ruled more than two years ago that the previous mandatory minimum laws were unconstitutional. Also, on Thursday a new policy allowing police to issue citations for marijuana possession instead of filing misdemeanor charges went into effect in Harrisburg.

Stephens says he is not going in the opposite direction of other states. In his favor, he notes some of the mandatory minimums in this bill are less aggressive than they were before the court ruling.

Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, agrees with Stephens. In voicing support of the bill, he told Watchdog that mandatory minimums “help keep the most dangerous offenders off our streets and help to ensure sentencing consistency.”

The Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police and the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association did not return Watchdog’s request for comment. 

By the numbers

An individual caught with between 10 and 50 pounds, or 21 to 50 live plants, would face a minimum prison sentence of one year, which is shorter than the previous minimum of three years.

Offenders caught with 50 pounds or more would receive a minimum of three years, a decrease from the previous minimum of five years.

The bill would reduce the sentences for individuals caught with cocaine. Still, many other penalties will stay the same as before the court ruling.

Correction: This story has been corrected to note that there is no mandatory minimum for a first offense delivery of marijuana of less than 10 pounds.

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Tyler Arnold is a journalism and media fellow for Watchdog.org. He is a Penn State graduate with a degree in print journalism and a minor in political science. He has also written for The Washington Free Beacon, Campus Reform, Crisis Magazine, The Libertarian Republic and The Daily Collegian. Follow him on Twitter: @TylerArnold18