When the phrase “mandatory minimum” comes up, it often conjures up images of first-time offender 19-year-old “Raheem” getting five years behind bars because he had 5.1 grams of crack cocaine in his pocket, while habitual criminal “Eddy” gets one year in prison because he possessed 5.0 grams, or even 40 grams of powder cocaine.
This past Monday, April 3, representatives in the Pennsylvania State House were expected to approve a new mandatory minimum sentence law, and the conjuring has begun again—because other than “for sentences for offenses committed on public transportation, sentences for offenses against elderly persons, sentences for offenses against infant persons, sentences for failure to comply with registration of sexual offenders and sentences for offenses committed while impersonating a law enforcement officer,” found in HB 741, all the others are drug offenses.
There are those on both sides of the aisle concerning mandatory minimum sentences.
Prosecutors from across the state, including Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, say they need the minimums to combat the exploding heroin epidemic.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that any fact triggering a mandatory minimum—the use of a gun, the amount of drugs possessed—must be determined by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Because in Pennsylvania those determinations were made by judges after trial, the state Supreme court ruled the guidelines unconstitutional in 2015.