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October 18, 2009

New report on mandatory minimum sentences from Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing

The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing late last week released this important research report, which is titled "A Study on the Use and Impact of Mandatory Minimum Sentences."  The study was undertaken at the direction of the state legislature, and it examined 1) the extent to which mandatory sentences are imposed, 2) the processing of mandatory sentencing cases, and 3) the effectiveness of mandatory sentencing with respect to crime reduction.

This local press article, which is headlined "State commission says drug-free school zone law should be repealed," reports on some of the highlights:

In a 490-page report Friday, the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing recommended the repeal of the drug-free zone law that prosecutors invoked against Range. The report also advocated raising the threshold of cocaine needed to trigger enhanced penalties for trafficking -- from 2 to 5 grams -- and allowing more drug cases to go through intermediate punishment or boot-camp programs.

The recommendations, part of an overall study of mandatory minimums in the state, offer a change from the mid-1990s, when many of the beefed-up laws were enacted amid a popular mantra of get-tough-on-crime.

Critics say the laws are clogging prisons, breaking state budgets and failing to address the problems they aim to, prompting legislatures to reconsider the wisdom of warehousing offenders when studies show treatment is cheaper and produces less recidivism.

"This year in the budget process was the first year I've heard some serious discussion of the cost, and 'Let's look at those issues,'" said Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, which advises the state on sentencing policy. "It's a rare time when I actually think there can be some progress moving forward with these recommendations."

But that may not prove to be the case, because school zones and other heightened penalties are popular among prosecutors and law enforcement officials.

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli is a supporter of the state's mandatory minimums, though he believes that more aren't needed. He said the minimums are a useful plea bargaining tool, because prosecutors can trade them for an admission of guilt. He said the goals of school zones are laudable. "It would be a mistake [to repeal them]," Morganelli said. "It would send a bad message that it's OK to deal drugs in school zones."

U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Lehigh, wrote Pennsylvania's school zone law in 1997 while serving in the state Legislature. He says it has helped keep drugs away from children. "The real issue is if these people were not in prison and on the streets, what would crime be then?" Dent asked.

The commission's report found school zones are "overbroad" and go beyond the goal of preventing drugs from being dealt to children. It also says the 1,000-feet parameter is problematic in dense urban areas and disproportionately affects minorities.

October 18, 2009 at 05:42 PM | Permalink

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Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission Publishes Report on Mandatory Minimums: Yesterday at Sentencing Law and Policy, Doug Berman posted portions of Riley Yates' article discussing the Pennsylvania Commission's study on the impact of mandatory minimums. Y... [Read More]

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Let's see if we can find a nexus between two back to back posts by our host.

"Effective review of the decline of the criminal jury trial in Virginia and elsewhere"

The full jury trial of today, however, is expensive and time-consuming. Douglass said heavy caseloads make it difficult to try many cases. “So prosecutors and defense counsel are looking for an alternative, and it leads to plea bargaining,” he said.

"New report on mandatory minimum sentences from Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing"

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli is a supporter of the state's mandatory minimums, though he believes that more aren't needed. He said the minimums are a useful plea bargaining tool, because prosecutors can trade them for an admission of guilt.

Did Tony Soprano amend the Constitution? What do you think, Daniel? Is this what our founders had in mind?

Posted by: George | Oct 18, 2009 11:44:19 PM

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