May 22, 2017

Prosecutors, law enforcement, families and PA’s top victim advocate call on Senate to take action on HB 741

Harrisburg, PA —Prosecutors, law enforcement, victims, victims’ families, and victims’ advocates called on the state Senate to protect Pennsylvania’s communities by taking action on a bill that would restore mandatory minimum sentences for violent offenders.

House Bill 741 passed the House by a vote of a vote of 122-67 on April 5, 2017. A similar bill passed the House last session but was never brought to a vote in the state Senate.

“For years, mandatory minimum sentencing worked to get and keep dangerous criminals off the street,” said PDAA President and Lebanon County District Attorney David J. Arnold, Jr. “The lack of mandatories is hurting us in prosecutions, preventing us from incarcerating violent convicts for an appropriate length of time and preventing the criminal justice system from providing more certainty and closure to victims and their families. We are asking the Senate to take up H.B. 741 to help lessen the risk to our communities.”

In 2015, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down many of Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentencing statutes because they did not require the Commonwealth to prove the elements triggering the sentence beyond a reasonable doubt. H.B. 741, a bill sponsored by Pennsylvania State Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery/Bucks) addresses this technical issue and restores this important law enforcement tool in cases such as committing a crime of violence with a firearm, raping a child, assaulting an elderly person, selling drugs while in possession of a firearm, possessing a weapon of mass destruction, failing to register as a sexual offender and dealing large quantities of drugs.

“We need as a Commonwealth to send a clear message to our most vulnerable victims that the crimes committed against them are too heinous to not have a mandatory minimum sentence,” said Jennifer Storm, Pennsylvania’s victim advocate, noting that certain crimes should have certain justice. “We need to impress upon the offenders and would-be offenders that there is a steep price to pay for preying upon our most vulnerable citizens. We cannot allow the voice taken from the victims by the offenders to be mirrored by silence in our laws.”

A mother who lost her son to drugs echoed Storm’s call for uniformity of sentencing in the most heinous crimes and protecting the citizens of the Commonwealth.

“There is a battle raging and our children are facing it every day,” said Charlene Sciarretta. “We can save our children by fighting for their rights – for their lives. We need to get drug dealers off our streets. And make no mistake, anyone involved in drug trafficking will be prosecuted and held accountable. HB 741 will make sure this happens.”

Just last week, a Grand Jury in Montgomery County issued a report on “The Opioid Crisis.” Among its conclusions and recommendations was to restore mandatory minimum sentences for heroin dealers, traffickers and suppliers. The report states: “This epidemic knows no politics. Our legislature should support these public safety efforts and pass legislation necessary to hold those accountable who deal and supply heroin and substances like Fentanyl.”

The mandatory minimum sentences restored in H.B. 741 are meant to incarcerate offenders whom a jury of their peers determines to be a danger to society and a threat to public safety. While H.B. 741 restores the mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes like sexual assault and violent drug crimes associated with drug dealing and trafficking, it would not restore certain low-level drug mandatories.

“When it comes to violent crimes such as rape, crimes committed with firearms and dealing large quantities of drugs, we know that mandatory minimum sentences work,” said Arnold.

Scholarly studies, including those by criminologists James Q. Wilson and Steven Levitt, conclude that longer sentences equate to less crime. Law enforcement and prosecutors in Pennsylvania have seen a difference on the streets and in the courtroom without them.

“Without mandatory minimum sentences, prosecutors, law enforcement and our communities feel the impact,” said Arnold. “Public safety is a core function of government. Even in times when we must stretch the public dollar and find more efficiency in government spending, we must never make sentencing decisions based on costs cutting goals. The cost to our communities, the risk to law enforcement officers and the price we are asking law abiding citizens to pay is much too high.”