Top prosecutors and law enforcement authorities from Southeastern Pennsylvania stood in unison on Friday at a press conference to urge state lawmakers to restore the sentencing guidelines for violent offenders, but a local state representative has come out against their position, saying mandatory minimums are unconstitutional and don’t work.
The legislation that law enforcement supports, House Bill 741, is scheduled for a full House vote next week.
Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan cited statistics for the City of Chester that included 120 people shot and 26 murdered in 2016. So far in 2017, Whelan said 20 people have been shot on Chester’s streets and nine have been murdered as a result of gun violence.
“There are 31,000 people in (Chester),” said Whelan. “A city that has been rated the most dangerous city in Pennsylvania and the second most dangerous city in the United States all due to gun violence. We need to get tough on gun violence. A five-year minimum mandatory on gun violence is probably not even enough. These people would turn around, look at you, and shoot you and kill you before you even had time to turn off your recorder. That’s how dangerous some of the criminals we are dealing with. These people should be incarcerated. These are people that deserve the minimum mandatory.”
In 2015 Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court struck down many of the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing statutes because they did not require the Commonwealth to prove the elements triggering the sentence beyond a reasonable doubt. House Bill 741, sponsored by state Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery/Bucks), addresses this technical issue and restores this law enforcement tool. The bill cleared the state House Judiciary Committee last Tuesday.
But state Rep. Joanna McClinton (D-Phila./Delaware), is not convinced. In a statement released Wednesday, the Southwest Philadelphia Democrat whose district includes Yeadon in Delaware County, took issue with H.B. 741.
McClinton acknowledged a letter she got from the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association claiming mandatory minimums work to improve public safety, but she isn’t convinced.
“This bill would potentially get more support if there were studies that showed crime was reduced, that neighborhoods are safer, that people stop selling drugs at the same intersection where someone gets arrested,” McClinton said. “Where is the decreased recidivism? Why hasn’t it happened yet in my community? Why are there drugs readily available and we have all these sentences, yet nothing has changed?”
Because of the Supreme Court ruling, crimes that no longer have mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania include: 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.
Whelan said the mandatory sentences prosecutors support are meant to incarcerate offenders who a jury determines “are a danger to society and a threat to public safety.” He believes until House Bill 741 is enacted, “they (offenders) can all receive, and some have received, across southeastern Pennsylvania, generously light sentences.”
“We want the five-year minimum mandatory to be the floor especially when you are dealing with some of these very serious crimes. We need the legislation re-enacted and we need to protect our families,” Whelan said.
“I wonder where the safety has improved,” McClinton, a lawyer and criminal justice advocate who has sponsored and co-sponsored legislation and hosted expungement clinics, said. “Time and time again, I look at the unfortunate homicide rate in Philadelphia and the number of non-fatal shootings where I live and they are always high, no matter how many people are behind bars serving 10-20, 25 to life.”
Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele noted the jump in overdose deaths from 177 deaths in 2016, to 250 to date in 2017.
“The detectives, police and investigators are doggedly targeting the supply of heroin traffickers who are brining this poison into our communities,” commented Steele. “One of the ways we have done that successfully is by catching a lower level drug offender – a dealer – they know they would be facing a mandatory sentence and have been willing to cooperate. That’s how we have been able to work up the ladder to work up the ladder to get the high level traffickers.”
The mandatory minimum sentences prosecutors 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. While H.B. 174 restores the mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes, it would not restore certain low-level drug mandatories. The bill actually reduces the length of many mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana and cocaine.