A blast from the past we don’t need

April 18, 2017
Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

One of the raps on Pennsylvania is that it’s stuck in the past.

Hosting lots of oldies concerts or Civil War re-enactments harms no one. Our antediluvian liquor laws are an inconvenience, to be sure, but hardly life or death. But state lawmakers are considering a blast from bygone times that could hinder Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system and increase the strain on the commonwealth’s budget.

Earlier this month, the state House of Representatives approved a measure restoring mandatory minimum sentences. They have been on ice since 2015, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled they were unconstitutional. At least 30 states have reconsidered their mandatory minimum laws. Both the right-leaning Commonwealth Foundation and the left-leaning Pennsylvania branch of the American Civil Liberties Union came out in opposition. Yet, prosecutors around the state, including Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone, have expressed support, saying the threat of mandatory minimum sentences would help ferret out large-scale drug dealers and help stem the rampaging opioid epidemic.

Wanting to do something to prevent further loss of life from heroin and its deadly brethren is admirable. But we think opponents of mandatory minimums have made the more convincing case.

Mandatory minimum sentencing became fashionable in the 1980s and 1990s, as politicians on both sides of the aisle sought to enhance their tough-on-crime bona fides.

However, several studies in the decades since have questioned the effectiveness of mandatory minimums, saying that they place more power in the hands of prosecutors, who can decide whether to charge defendants with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences, and reduces the power of judges and juries, who cannot consider the specific circumstances of each case.

In an opinion piece published by PennLive, Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel and Kristofer Bucklen, the research director for the Department of Corrections, pointed out that mandatory minimum laws “require courts to treat all defendants the same, regardless of the facts of the case or the person’s circumstances.”

They also said the laws do nothing to enhance public safety or deter offenders – ostensibly the purpose of our whole criminal justice system.

“Mandatory minimums target the severity of punishment by unnecessarily ratcheting up sentence lengths,” Wetzel and Bucklen wrote.

“For criminals who tend to be impulsive, inconsistently delivered and arbitrarily long sentences do nothing to deter future crime.”

Sentences imposed under mandatory minimum laws have helped explode the prison population, busting budgets and devastating communities. There’s been a growing consensus that logging time behind bars is perhaps not the best type of punishment for certain types of offenders, particularly those convicted of drug possession who are not violent. Estimates have it that restoring mandatory minimum laws would cost the commonwealth $85 million – money that taxpayers can ill afford to toss away.

“The state House is stuck in 1995,” said Reggie Shufford, the executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. While 1995 yielded some good things – DVDs, eBay, the first “Toy Story” movie – there’s no need for nostalgia about the sentencing procedures of yesteryear. Hopefully the state Senate will agree.

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