This article was originally published on triblive.com on May 22, 2017
Amid a mounting budget deficit that has led to $232 million in proposed cuts to Pennsylvania’s corrections, courts, treatment and policing programs, the Legislature is considering a bill that would increase prison time for some offenders and drive up taxpayer costs by $85 million annually.
But the financial impact got little attention during a three-hour Senate hearing on a House bill that would reinstate mandatory minimum prison sentences for some drug and violent crime offenses.
Rather, prosecutors spoke about the psychological impact mandatory minimums have on easing victims’ anguish and stoking cooperation among defendants who fear them at a time the state is facing a prescription opioid drug and heroin scourge that is claiming multiple lives a day.
“Certain offenders need to go away and go away for a certain amount of time,” Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman told the Senate Appropriations and Judiciary committees. “You can’t talk about mandatory minimums without [talking about] victims.”
Opponents, including the state’s top prison warden, a judge and two academics, argued mandatory minimums do not deter crime, but do fill jail cells with nonviolent, first-time offenders who all too often are minorities.
Mandatory minimums were designed to catch big fish but historical studies of state and federal prison data shows little fish are nabbed, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel testified. The House bill, he said, is written so broadly that low-risk users and addicts will be arrested and sent to prison under plea deals. If that happens, he said, the Legislature will repeat the same mistakes it made in the 1990s, when it enacted tougher mandatory minimum laws.
“The language has to be very precise,” Wetzel said. “We don’t want to catch little fish.”
The state corrections department estimates the bill, if it becomes law, would increase the state’s prison population by 2,200 inmates, reversing a six-year decline.
The hearing Monday at the Capitol was a microcosm of a growing national criminal justice debate amid the opioid scourge.
Mandatory minimums were introduced at the federal level in the 1980s and in Pennsylvania in the 1990s to combat a rise in violent crime associated with an inner-city crack-cocaine epidemic. The laws allowed prosecutors to win beefed-up prison terms for drug dealing, firearms offenses and violent crimes.
Beginning in 2000, several states rescinded or relaxed mandatory minimums in part over mounting incarceration costs. In 2009, the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing issued a report that found mandatories did not deter a majority of drug dealers, violent offenders and half of firearms offenders from committing the same crime within three years of being released from prison.
Pennsylvania prosecutors lost that power under federal and state court decisions in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Judges now sentence using a legally approved range of incarceration time.
During the hearing Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, said he wrote many of the state’s old laws “to make our streets safer and do away with our drug problem. That didn’t go well.”
Mandatory minimums have their fans, however.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently instructed federal prosecutors to use mandatory minimums, rescinding a 2013 policy to avoid mandatory minimums for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.
Last month, the Republican-controlled state House passed a bill that would give county and state prosecutors discretion to use mandatory minimums. The bill would leave the same ‘90s-era penalties for heroin and meth possession and for selling drugs to minors around schools. It would add mandatory sentences for violent offenses against the elderly and infants, and for failing to register as a sex offender.
Mandatory minimums can cause defendants to waive certain constitutional rights, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning testified Monday.
“Leave judging to the judges,” he said.
Jefferson County President Judge John H. Foradora said he does not have a problem with mandatory minimums in some instances, including child and elder abuse, drunken driving and some drug cases.
Why shouldn’t elected county prosecutors be allowed to use mandatory minimums? asked Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., a former county assistant district attorney.
Because it creates an unfair advantage in the adversarial courtroom relationship between prosecutors and defense lawyers, answered Mark Kleiman, a New York University criminal justice professor.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has not scheduled a vote on the House bill. Gov. Tom Wolf opposes the bill.