Why tout debunked deterrence myths?

By Elizabeth Randol, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Photo via Dave on Flickr.

Pop quiz: can you name a crime that carried a mandatory minimum sentence in Pennsylvania? Can you name the minimum sentence for that crime? No? Don’t worry, you’re in good company — 66% of your fellow Pennsylvanians didn’t know the answer either. If most people can’t name a single crime or the minimum sentence it carries, then it defies reason (and established research) that mandatory minimums deter crime.

And yet this past week, district attorneys from the west to the southeast of the commonwealth touted this debunked deterrence myth in their support for HB 741, a bill that would reinstate mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania. For over two years, Pennsylvania has been without them — but not because we repealed them. Mandatory minimums were invalidated after the PA Supreme Court ruled that the process we used to impose them was unconstitutional. But supporters of this bill, including many district attorneys, want mandatory minimums back, claiming that they are an important tool in fighting crime and keeping the public safe.

What they fail to mention are Pennsylvania’s existing and exhaustive sentencing guidelinesthat already establish benchmarks for criminal sentences. In fact, HB 741’s mandatory minimums are nearly identical to sentences recommended in the guidelines. And judges sentence criminals within those guidelines 90% of the time. But legislators and district attorneys would have us imagine that without mandatory minimums, violent criminals risk being sentenced to a slap on the wrist. When the press asked about this wrist-slapping, district attorneys were unable to cite even one case that resulted in an overly lenient sentence.

But not everyone in the criminal justice community believes that mandatory minimums are an effective public safety measure. PA Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel recently argued against reinstating mandatory minimums, namely because they don’t make the public safer. They fail to deter crime or reduce recidivism, they legislate decision-making best left to judges, and, if this bill passes, they would balloon the prison population, resulting in an estimated increase of $85M annually to cover incarceration costs.

District attorneys and the legislators who support HB 741 threaten to put Pennsylvania on a collision course with reform efforts that are now standard throughout the United States. Don’t let them move Pennsylvania backwards with an ineffective, outdated, and one-size-fits-all approach to crime. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.

Please contact your state representative next week and urge them to vote NO on HB 741.

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins (left) prepares to speak to Democratic members of Congress on March 30, 2017. Photo from The Daily News.

  • From The Daily News: “Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins visits Congress to push criminal justice reforms”

“Along with Jenkins, they all said they hoped to use their experiences and their platforms as athletes to make the issue a priority during a busy Congressional session. ‘We’re here to use our leverage, our voices, to make sure that our families, our communities, our kids are a priority to the people here on Capitol Hill, to this administration, to the rest of our nation,’ Jenkins told seven Democratic members of Congress during a public forum. He said he got involved in the issue after seeing the widely-publicized incidents involving police and minorities last year. He met with the Philadelphia police commissioner and community groups, joined protests during the national anthem at Eagles games — holding his fist aloft — and recently visited a state prison in Graterford, Pa. He argued that the current criminal system is costing too much money, due to the number of people sentenced to prison, and ‘creates doubt and distrust’ between police and the communities they work in.”

  • From Harold Jordan of the ACLU of Pennsylvania in The Post-Gazette: “Don’t arm school police”

“A Post-Gazette editorial (‘Arm the Officers,’ March 24) and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers executive board resolution both put forth troubling arguments that are at odds with what we know about school policing. The most immediate impact of arming school police would be felt by students, as school-based police spend the bulk of their time interacting with students in non-emergency situations. Having officers patrol the hallways with firearms sends a negative message to students. It makes many students feel that they are being treated like suspects. It can have an intimidating presence and can contribute to negative attitudes about police, in general. There is no evidence that arming school officers increases overall safety or improves relationships within school communities. Having an armed officer stationed in schools has neither prevented nor stopped ‘active shooter’ incidents. It did not at Columbine High School nor has it elsewhere. Thankfully, these tragic situations are still rare in schools.”

  • From ACLU of Pennsylvania: “Attorney General Sessions’ Interpretation of Immigration Law is ‘Extreme and Indefensible’”

“The following can be attributed to Sara Rose, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania: ‘Numerous courts have held that jails violate the Fourth Amendment when they hold people on immigration detainers, which are issued without probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. Attorney General Sessions’ statement sends the message to municipalities that they must violate their residents’ constitutional rights or lose federal funding. Such a requirement is plainly illegal under our system of government.’”

  • From The Daily News: “A death row inmate, a murder victim’s son, and a 16-year quest for justice”

“The timing for Lowenstein’s tome couldn’t be better — just as eight candidates jockey to replace disgraced Philadelphia DA Seth Williams and debate what must be done to repair the city’s deeply flawed criminal-justice regime. The fact that Williams’ lieutenants not only continue to defend Ogrod’s deeply flawed conviction but are blocking DNA tests that could prove Ogrod’s innocence or guilt is Exhibit A in that system’s indictment.”

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