PDAA Support for HB 741
Pennsylvania’s District Attorneys strongly support HB 741 introduced by Representative Stephens. This legislation is necessary to restore many mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently struck down some of our mandatory minimum sentencing statutes because they did not require the Commonwealth to prove the elements triggering the sentence beyond a reasonable doubt. As a result, Pennsylvania has very few mandatory minimum sentences to protect our state from violent offenders. HB 741 addresses the Court’s findings and remedies these defects by requiring the fact finder in a trial to determine if the mandatory sentencing elements have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Mandatory minimum sentences work to improve public safety: they help to keep the most dangerous offenders off our streets. They also ensure that defendants who commit similar crimes with similar records receive the same sentences.
The mandatory minimum sentences we support are meant to incarcerate offenders whom a jury of their peers determines to be a danger to society and a threat to public safety. Some of these crimes include: committing a crime of violence with a firearm, raping a child, assaulting an elderly person, dealing drugs while in possession of a firearm, possessing a weapon of mass destruction, failing to register as a sexual offender, or trafficking large quantities of drugs.
Opponents of mandatory minimum sentences often highlight the impact those sentences have on low-level drug or non-violent offenders. This legislation would not restore certain low-level drug mandatories and actually reduces the length of many mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana and cocaine. We believe this approach to certain drug-related mandatories is appropriate and illustrates a fair balance.
Should a person who rapes a child get a short sentence in state prison? Should a person who breaks into a private residence and terrorizes the people inside with a firearm get a county prison sentence? Should a person selling meth while in possession of a firearm receive a short sentence in county prison? Should an individual trafficking heroin in our neighborhoods walk away with mere probation? Until HB 741 is enacted, they all can receive—and some have received—generously light sentences.
Some opponents of the legislation have bemoaned the potential fiscal impact the bill would have. The moment the Commonwealth bases public safety decisions primarily on fiscal grounds is the moment that our citizens and communities become incredibly less secure and less safe.
The DOC contends that there is no evidence that mandatory minimum sentences work. Police officers who put their lives on the line every day to keep heroin dealers from selling poison to our kids would disagree; assistant district attorneys who have begun to see sentences in violent cases decrease, even below the Sentencing Guideline ranges, would disagree; and victims of violent crime, who have no assurance that the person that committed a horrific act against them will be incarcerated for an appropriate amount of time, would disagree.
Indeed, scholarly studies, including those by criminologists James Q. Wilson and Steven Levitt, conclude that longer sentences equate to less crime. And we can tell you from experience, from being on the front lines every day as we try to keep our communities safe and remove violent and dangerous criminals from our streets and protect our victims of violent crimes, that mandatory minimum sentences keep our neighborhoods safer and protect the public.
We ask you to support law enforcement and victims of crime and help to ensure that dangerous offenders receive the appropriate sentences their illegal acts warrant by supporting HB 741, a balanced and appropriate piece of legislation.
David J. Arnold, Jr.
President, Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association