HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed legislation today to restore many of the commonwealth’s mandatory minimum sentences, which have been unenforceable since 2015 as a result of federal and state court rulings. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania criticized the vote, calling mandatory minimum sentences “the old way of thinking.”
“The state House is stuck in 1995,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “After several decades of using mandatory minimums, the evidence is in. They have no effect on public safety, they are expensive, and they disproportionately impact people of color.”
Introduced by Representative Todd Stephens of Montgomery County, House Bill 741 reinstates many mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and for violent crimes, while implementing the constitutionally mandated process demanded by the courts. Mandatory minimums were invalidated in 2015 after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, following the lead of the United States Supreme Court, ruled that the process used to impose them in criminal trials was unconstitutional.
With mandatory minimum sentences suspended, trial courts have used the commonwealth’s non-binding sentencing guidelines to reach decisions after convictions.
The bill includes the controversial school zone mandatory minimum sentence, which is triggered when drug offenses occur within 1,000 feet of the property of a school or university or within 250 feet of a recreation center or playground. The provision makes no distinction for the time of day that the offense occurs, where it occurs, or who is involved.
The school zone mandatory minimum has proven controversial in part because large areas of cities fall within the designated area, creating a disproportionate impact on urban dwellers and people of color. In a 2009 report, the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing recommended eliminating the school zone mandatory or at least shrinking it.
“It’s reasonable to try to prevent drug trafficking outside the gates of schools,” said Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It is unreasonable to compound the punishment for an offense that occurs indoors at midnight on a Saturday because it happens to be within 1,000 feet of a school.”
The report from the Commission on Sentencing also determined that mandatory minimum sentences fail to deter crime or reduce recidivism. In fact, most Pennsylvanians cannot name an offense that carries a mandatory minimum sentence or the sentence that accompanies such an offense.
“The courts gave us a gift when they overturned our mandatory minimum sentencing process,” Randol said. This throwback bill puts Pennsylvania on a collision course with evidence-based reform efforts that are now standard across the U.S.
“We’re not going to resolve issues of public safety by resurrecting an ineffective sentencing regime that attempts to arrest our way out of a problem.”
Randol noted that the House’s passage of HB 741 defies the trend around the country in which states are reducing or repealing mandatory minimum sentences. Last year, Maryland significantly reduced its use of mandatory minimums to only high volume drug traffickers. In 2009, New York repealed most mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Other states, like South Carolina and Georgia, have implemented so-called “safety valves” to give exceptions to mandatory minimums based on circumstances in individual cases. And Texas has never had mandatory minimum sentences.
“Prosecutors in those states aren’t having trouble prosecuting criminal cases,” Randol said. “It’s not clear why it would be any different for district attorneys in Pennsylvania.”
HB 741 is also burdened by a hefty price tag. The Department of Corrections has estimated that the legislation will cost the agency an additional $85 million annually.
The bill now heads to the state Senate for its consideration. A similar bill passed the House in the 2015-16 legislative session but was not brought to a vote in the Senate.