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District Attorneys Call For Mandatory Minimum Sentences, Corrections Secretary Disagrees

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala calls for mandatory minimum sentences during a press conference on Tuesday, March 29, 2017.

District attorneys from Allegheny, Butler and Washington counties are calling on legislators to restore mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated mandatory minimum sentences in 2015, saying criminal defendants did not know the potential sentence they faced until after conviction. Offenders knew their punishment carried at least a fixed punishment time and prosecutors used that to leverage information from an offender.

Now, prosecutors are asking legislators to pass House Bill 741 that would reinstate mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes against children, the elderly and crimes involving drugs.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala said mandatory sentences were an important investigative tool, because they could use the weight of the laws to encourage offenders to share information.

“My sense is there is very little disagreement among law enforcement with respect to these particular categories,” he said.

Zappala said the bill would help in the crackdown on opioids. He said investigators used the threat of more than the minimum sentence to get leads on bigger drug dealers.

Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone said the legislation is something his county needs as it faces a heroin epidemic.

Elizabeth Randol, legislative director for the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, opposes the legislation. She cites studies that say mandatory minimum sentences do not deter crime or reduce recidivism.

They also take away a judge’s ability to make decisions based on individual cases, she said.

“It’s a one-size-fits-all solution to sentencing, and it gives judges very little room to make their own discretionary choices,” Randol said.

One of the elements of the bill the ACLU most disagrees with is the “drug-free school zone,” according to Randol. Zappala praised that portion of the bill, which would impose the minimum sentence for drug sales on school grounds. Randol said people in densely populated cities with many schools would be unfairly affected.

“The person in the city will get the mandatory minimum sentence and the person who just happens to not be within the 1,000 feet of the school will not,” she said.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel wrote in a PennLive op-ed last week that mandatory minimum sentences do not enhance public safety, citing that crime in the commonwealth “is lower now than it was in 1970 before mandatory minimums existed.”  

“Judges in Pennsylvania sentence within the recommended guidelines 90 percent of the time, and the 7 percent of cases where judges depart below the guidelines is mostly due to a recommendation by the prosecutor. Sentencing guidelines render mandatory minimum sentences unnecessarily rigid,” he wrote on Pennsylvania’s sentencing guidelines.

The bill was approved last week by the judiciary committee. The full House will vote on it next week.  

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.
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