Lawmakers aim to reinstate mandatory minimum sentencing

David Weissman
  • Lawmakers, with support of the law enforcement community, are seeking to reinstate mandatory minimums.
  • The state's mandatory minimum laws were ruled unconstitutional in 2015.
  • The ACLU and state Department of Corrections argue mandatory minimum sentences don't decrease crime.

A state law imposing mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes hasn't been followed since it was ruled unconstitutional in 2015, but lawmakers are working to reinstate it.

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House Bill 741 to reimpose mandatory minimums passed the House Judiciary Committee, 22-5, last week with bipartisan support and awaits a full House vote before it would move to the Senate.

The bill — introduced by Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery County — passed in the House last session but stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Stephens, a longtime prosecutor before entering politics, said law enforcement across the state has been pushing for this legislation since the state Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional.

In accordance with the court's ruling, Stephens' bill would require juries to make the determination beyond a reasonable doubt for when a defendant qualifies for mandatory minimum sentencing instead of the judge making that ruling.

Law-enforcement support: The law sets mandatory minimum jail time and/or fines for various crimes including high-level drug trafficking, child abuse and crimes committed using a gun.

Rep. Kate Klunk, R-Hanover, voted in favor of the bill in the House Judiciary Committee. She wrote in a statement that the bill penalizes "horrible, despicable crimes that are generally committed against our most vulnerable citizens."

Rep. Kate Klunk during the swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The bill is supported by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, Fraternal Order of Police, Pennsylvania State Troopers Association and Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association — essentially "all the groups given the responsibility of protecting our citizens," Stephens said.

The York County District Attorney's Office forwarded along the district attorneys association's statement:

"Mandatory minimum sentences work to improve public safety: they help to keep the most dangerous offenders off our streets," the statement reads. "They also ensure that defendants who commit similar crimes with similar records receive the same sentences."

No proof: Opponents of the legislation, including the American Civil Liberties Union and state Department of Corrections, point to a 2009 study that concluded mandatory minimum sentences do not deter crime or reduce recidivism.

Elizabeth Randol, legislative director for ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the law unnecessarily takes discretion away from judges, who follow state sentencing guidelines about 90 percent of the time, according to the study by the state Commission on Sentencing.

Stephens said there's no question mandatory minimums keep violent offenders from hurting the general public. He added that he's seen numerous examples of judges giving "ridiculously" low sentences for serious crimes since the law was ruled unconstitutional.

Asked for a local example, Kyle King, a spokesman for the York County District Attorney's Office, pointed to Eliezer Almanzar, a former teacher's aide at a York City charter school who was convicted of molesting a 4-year-old girl.

Almanzar was sentenced to six to 12 years in prison, while the mandatory minimum sentence under the law would have been 10 to 20 years, according to King.

King wrote in an email that an estimated 25 percent to 30 percent of his office's felony narcotics cases would call for mandatory minimum sentences, and many cases could be tried under the law's gun and drug and school zone mandatories.

York County District Attorney Tom Kearney

The school zone mandatory is one of the stipulations that the ACLU takes particular exception to, according to Randol.

Drug traffickers who conduct business within a certain distance of schools or playgrounds are subject to harsher sentences under the law, and Randol said this disproportionately affects people living in cities.

Stephens said he sees it as providing greater protections to children living in cities.

Financial case: Kristofer "Bret" Bucklen and John Wetzel, both with the state Department of Corrections, recently co-authored an op-ed pointing to the financial benefits of preventing the return of mandatory minimums.

"Mandatory minimum sentencing wastes taxpayer dollars and diverts limited resources away from pursuing more serious offenders and supporting law enforcement," they wrote.

Budget estimates show bringing back the law could cost up to $85 million more per year.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.