PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE: End mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania

They fill our prisons at great expense but do little to improve public safety

By James Young and Waleed Shahid

December 17, 2014

Since 1980, Pennsylvania’s prison population increased sixfold to about 51,000 people, thanks in part to state legislation passed during the frenzy of the failed “War on Drugs.” Bipartisan policies passed in Washington and in state capitals have led the United States to house 25 percent of the world’s prisoners despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population. In Pennsylvania, laws requiring mandatory minimum sentencing have been a primary driver of the skyrocketing numbers of prisoners and the enormously expensive prisons that accompanied their tragic rise.

Gov. Tom Corbett has shown little leadership in reforming mandatory minimum sentencing. Gov.-elect Tom Wolf says he opposes mandatory minimums but has yet to detail how he would reform Pennsylvania sentencing practices.

The cost of incarcerating Pennsylvania’s 51,000 prisoners exceeds $2 billion a year, the third-highest expense for the state. Eliminating mandatory minimums is one way to start getting these costs under control.

Momentum to end mandatory minimum sentencing has been growing. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that some mandatory minimum sentences were unconstitutional, finding that they can be applied only when the specific evidence that triggers a mandatory minimum specifically has been found true beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury.

Although Pennsylvania has been slow to adopt this ruling, judges in Allegheny, Chester, Montgomery and Lycoming counties have found mandatory minimums unconstitutional, and courts in Blair, Bucks and Berks counties have stopped imposing mandatory minimums in certain cases until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court steps in or the Legislature addresses the issue.

In Pittsburgh, Judge Beth Lazzara refused to impose a mandatory minimum, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision. Finally, Pennsylvania’s Superior Court has similarly deemed certain mandatory minimum sentences unconstitutional, removing some discretionary powers from district attorneys’ offices and restoring it to judges.

Beyond the legality of mandatory minimums, their effectiveness has also been brought into question.

Mandatory minimums have sometimes been favored by individuals seeking to deter crimes involving the possession of drugs or firearms. They insist that deterrence results from simply locking up potential criminals, yet there is little evidence that mandatory minimums actually have any crime-reducing effect.

Last year, a study by Northwestern University Law School concluded that “decades of empirical research … have established that ‘policies [such as enhanced prison terms] rooted in the deterrence theory framework … have been shown to have little empirical support.” The study also found that mandatory minimums had no detectable effect on violent-crime rates in Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan and Virginia.

The next governor and Legislature must face the fact that mandatory minimums are a failure. Yet, in the session just expired, lawmakers continued to introduce bills that would add more mandatory minimums, even as much of the country is headed in the opposite direction.

House Bill 1498, for example, would have imposed a five-year sentence without parole for the unlawful possession of a handgun by someone with a prior felony conviction. Such posession would trigger the state “Three Strikes Law,” which requires a 10-year sentence for a second offense and 25 years for a third offense. Bills like these would continue to add more people to our costly and overcrowded prisons while doing little to improve public safety.

Legislators appear to be waiting to see if the state Supreme Court takes up this issue. But why don’t they act on the 2007 Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing report that found “neither the length of sentence, nor the imposition of the mandatory sentence per se, was a predictor of recidivism”? After seven years, the Legislature has done little to implement the commission’s findings.

Mandatory minimums destroy families, undermine communities and fail to promote safety. We need our new governor to take the lead on reforming Pennsylvania’s unjust sentencing laws, not wait for someone else to take action. We need our state to divest from a system of mass incarceration and to invest in what we know creates healthy, sustainable communities: good public schools, decent jobs, quality health care and social services. We cannot afford to wait any longer.

James Young of Reading and Waleed Shahid of Philadelphia are members of Decarcerate PA.