Prior to 2013, Pennsylvania law imposed mandatory sentencing for defendants who committed various crimes, such as drug related crimes. However, after a 2013 Supreme Court case, this all changed. In Alleyne vs. the United States, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory minimum sentences were unconstitutional and unenforceable. After this ruling, many of Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws became unconstitutional. One such mandatory minimum sentencing law was the drug-free school zone mandatory minimum sentencing law.
Pennsylvania’s Drug-Free School Zone Law Prior to Alleyne
The drug-free school zone law increased sentences for defendants convicted of possessing or selling drugs within 1000 feet of a school zone. Convicted defendants had to serve a minimum sentence of 2 years. After the Alleyne decision, the PA Superior Court struck down the drug-free school zone sentencing law as unconstitutional and unenforceable in Commonwealth v. Bizzel (December 2, 2014).
Since Alleyne, there has been a lot of debate between lawmakers and prosecutors about the drug-free school zone law. Prosecutors favor these kinds of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, believing that they keep “dangerous” criminals in prison longer. They believe that without the drug-free school zone law, drug dealers and suppliers get less prison time and are back on the streets faster, selling drugs.
Reviving Pennsylvania’s Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws
Earlier this year, a Montgomery County legislator, Republican State Rep. Todd Stephens, introduced legislation in March to restore mandatory minimum sentencing laws. This is not the first time Stephens introduced the bill. He introduced it last year. It was passed in the House, but failed in the Senate.
Stephen’s current bill, House Bill 741, passed the House on April 5, 2017.
Stephens was a former prosecutor at the Montgomery County District Attorney Office and believes that if passed, the legislation would be a vital tool for prosecutors, especially in the war on drugs. It [add “supposedly” (otherwise, this sentence sounds pro-prosecution)] gets low-level drug dealers to cooperate in investigations in order to bring down kingpins. Without the leverage, it’s argued that low-level drug dealers don’t cooperate because they are not afraid of what is going to happen to them in court. Stephen said, “As a prosecutor myself, I have used the mandatory minimum sentences to do exactly that.”
Other prosecutors are also pushing for the bill. Kevin R. Steele, the Montgomery County District Attorney, also has the same belief as Stephens. He said that investigators have found it more difficult to get low-level drug dealers to cooperate without mandatory minimums.
According to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, since the sentencing laws were declared unconstitutional, more cases in Philadelphia are ending in plea deals, resulting in shorter sentences than the mandatory minimum sentences. The DA’s Office believes that the mandatory minimums were “keeping the citizens of Philadelphia safe by keeping dangerous offenders in custody longer.”
The legislation would bring back the minimum 2 years for drug offenses that involve as little as 1 or 2 grams of a controlled substance and 2 years for dealing drugs in a school zone. The legislation would also apply mandatory sentencing for repeat violent offenders.
Opposition to Restoring Mandatory Sentencing Laws
Many are opposed to Stephen’s bill and say that mandatory minimums are not effective crime deterrents. The Bureau of Planning, Research and Statistics at the Department of Corrections is one such party. Bret Bucklen, the department’s director said, “…there’s no evidence that mandatory-minimum sentences are effective in terms of public safety. A lot of states are questioning their mandatory minimums. We have the advantage of not having them right now, and crime rates have not gone up. So, it doesn’t seem to make sense to bring them back.”
Another opposing group is the Commission on Sentencing, which specifically opposes the school zone mandatory sentence. The Commission believes it is over broad. A school zone includes property 1,000 ft around the school. The commission mapped out the 1,000 ft school zones and found that they covered 20% of the state and 30% of Philadelphia.
In addition, the state Department of Corrections estimates that it could cost $19 million in the first year, and as much as $85.5 million annually in the future if the legislation is passed. The department believes that the decline in the state prison population in the last few years is partly due to not having mandatory sentences.
The bill is now in the Senate. We will be closely following this issue.
About David S. Nenner, a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer
Mr. Nenner is a highly experienced Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer and has represented defendants accused in drug related cases, homicide cases, weapons cases and other criminal cases. Mr. Nenner always offers a FREE consultation, unlike many criminal defense lawyers. Call 215.564.0644 to schedule a consultation.
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