Legislation is pending in Harrisburg that would restore mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania.
Passage of the House bill would allow mandatory minimums for certain crimes involving drugs or violence.
Rep. Todd Stephens, a Montgomery County Republican, introduced the bill which would allow prosecutors to present evidence to jurors to decide whether a mandatory sentencing trigger had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Many Pennsylvania lawmakers and prosecutors are seeking to turn back the clock by reinstating many of the state’s mandatory minimum sentences in response to the heroin epidemic sweeping across the country.
The bill, which was approved by the House Judiciary Committee, is expected to come up soon for a vote in the full House.
Mandatory minimums sentences may have started out as well-intentioned response to the drug crisis in the 1980s. It first appeared to be a useful tool to keep the most dangerous individuals off the streets and to act as a deterrent to other offenders.
The shocking number of deaths from a cocaine overdoses in the 1980s led Congress to pass tough mandatory sentences for drug crimes.
But good intentions do not always lead to good policy.
Mandatory minimum sentences resulted in rising prison costs and a massive increase in imprisonment of nonviolent offenders.
Mandatory minimums took away judges’ discretionary power and led to less flexibility for courts. Studies showed that instead of eliminating disparity by curbing judicial discretion mandatory minimums shifted power to local prosecutors who disproportionally file mandatory minimum charges against African American and Latino defendants.
Mandatory minimum sentences give prosecutors an unfair advantage to use the threat of lengthy sentences to push plea bargains which might otherwise not happen.
There is no solid evidence that mandatory minimum sentences did anything to make the public safer.
The state Supreme Court struck down most mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania as unconstitutional in 2015. That decision rightly returned sentencing power to judges using guidelines established by law. The decision followed a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on mandatory minimum sentences.
Prosecutors have the tools now to keep dangerous individuals off the street and send them to prison for a long time without reinstating costly and ineffective mandatory minimum sentences.