PHILADELPHIA- Members of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly confronted the question of the burden of mandatory minimum sentences on the Commonwealth’s criminal justice system at an informational meeting today in Philadelphia. The meeting was convened by the PA House Subcommittee on Courts in reference to House Resolution 12.
“I come at this from the perspective of justice,” said Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware County), the primary sponsor of the resolution who stated that mandatory minimums take the “leeway” out of judges’ hands.
HR 12 would initiate a study of mandatory minimums by the PA Commission on Sentencing. A similar study was undertaken in 2004, but the judiciary committee had supervision of that project while the HR 12 study will be supervised by the Commission on Sentencing. In addition, the previous study lasted just eight months while the new one will last two years.
Several of the meeting’s witnesses echoed Vitali’s concern about giving judges greater discretion.
Jules Epstein, Associate Professor at Widener School of Law, observed that there are more than 1,000 people serving a mandatory sentence of life without parole for second degree homicide in Pennsylvania, and some of them “didn’t touch a hair on anyone’s head.”
William DiMascio, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, talked about an example, Michael Anderson, who recently had his life sentence commuted by Governor Rendell. According to DiMascio, Anderson found a knife and took it with him on a bus en route to a concert. Another passenger took the knife from Anderson and used it to stab and kill a third passenger.
Under mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, Anderson got LWOP. The perpetrator served seven years and was paroled. He then went on to commit a series of crimes in Philadelphia and became known as the Center City Stalker.
Peter Rosalsky of the Philadelphia Defenders Association talked about another situation in which giving the judge leeway in sentencing may have been prudent. At a wedding, a fight broke out between the bride’s father and her step-father. One of the men, who was 61, fell and broke a bone. The uninjured participant, who was 59, was sentenced to 2-4 years under mandatory minimum sentencing because the injured man was considered elderly by state law.
Several witnesses also addressed the deterrence effect of mandatory minimum sentences.
“Once the commission does this study, what they will find is that higher and higher sentences do not deter,” said Arthur Donato, Jr., sociology professor at Villanova University and the past president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He went on to say that crime is deterred “when people have a stake in society and they have hope.”
Epstein pointed to research from the 1990s that shows no deterrent effect with mandatory minimums.
“Whether or not deterrence works depends on the population we’re focused on” and mandatory minimums are not a deterrent for street level drug dealing, he said.
Donato also raised concerns about checks-and-balances with a high concentration of power in the hands of prosecutors.
“Mandatory minimum sentences never apply unless a prosecutor wants it to,” he said. “The amount of power is overwhelmingly in the executive branch.
“I’ve seen judges weep in giving a mandatory minimum sentence. I’ve never seen a judge say, ‘Gosh, I wish the sentence could be harsher here.'”
The committee will hold another informational meeting with district attorneys and judges in the first week of May.
Andy in Harrisburg