Mandatory Minimums Bill Makes a Mockery of the Judicial Process

speedy trial PAThe case against HB 1601

The phrase, “I’m sorry, my hands are tied” is not something Judges should be saying, yet often, due to unreasonable mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, it’s become increasingly common in courtrooms for Judges to admit and even apologize for their inability to act as a Judge in a realistic, well-considered and even, on occasion, compassionate way.

Judges are there to consider justice not just by the book, arbitrarily following guidelines and rules, but as a human being, able to go beyond the black and white and in the process, render decisions that are just on a case by case basis.

The term “Conveyor Belt Justice” means exactly that. In an effort to streamline what is rapidly becoming a for-profit revenue stream for the government and corporations,’ we’ve seen the judiciary adopt policies that sound good on paper, but are often a disaster in practice.  Mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders are not justice, yet that’s exactly what HB 1601 is all about.

In Allegheny County, Rep. Dom Costa and Rep. Harry Readshaw have co-sponsored HB 1601, which would re-institute mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

I oppose this with every fiber of my being and I urge you to as well. If you live in Allegheny County please call Reps Costa and Readshaw and tell them you agree with a growing bi-partisan consensus that mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses are ineffective and serve no purpose whatsoever other than to increase residency in an already overbooked Department of Corrections. I have great respect for Mr. Costa and Mr. Readshaw, but I respectfully disagree with this bill because it goes against what a growing number of law enforcement professionals are themselves saying.

In fact, High Times just ran a story about the growing number of members of the law enforcement community who have concluded that mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses have no impact and should be reduced and even eliminated.

Read the report from High Times Here.

Locking up violent, hardened criminals is a good idea, no argument there.

One could even make the case that mandatory minimum sentences make sense for certain crimes which are so heinous, one does not need to be an expert to see it requires harsh punishment. Some crimes are repeatedly perpetrated by some really bad people, with a long history of doing bad things. There comes a point when one cannot find anything redeemable in those people. They themselves will often admit they cannot stop themselves from doing whatever it is they do. There just isn’t effective therapy for mass murderers and serial rapists. Some criminals have truly passed the point of no return.

As Richard Pryor once said, he didn’t like the thought of locking people up, but “Thank God we have penitentiary’s.”

Yet even when the crime is so repulsive to us, it’s nearly impossible to see them as human beings at all, we in the Justice system cannot allow ourselves to forget, we are human beings.

Yes, I am a defense attorney, sworn to defend my clients to the best of my ability, yet many times, it’s as much about arguing in favor of my client to ensure the punishment is not excessive, as it is about guilt or innocence. There is a give and take, a negotiation that occurs between the defense, the prosecution, the arresting officers and the Judge.  That dynamic is destroyed by mandatory minimum sentences and is not justice, most especially in cases of non-violent drug offenses.

The United States Supreme Court held mandatory minimum sentencing provisions are unconstitutional unless proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Our statutes were written to give prosecutors the maximum ability to abuse their discretion by requiring a lesser burden of proof.

HB 1601 would amend that language and require proof beyond a reasonable doubt and will reinstate all PA non-violent drug mandatory minimum including mandatory state incarceration for 10 cannabis plants, 2 grams of cocaine or crack and 1 gram of heroin.

In an age where there is strong and widespread bipartisan support for eliminating non-violent drug mandatory minimums, only Pennsylvania would try to double down on such an outdated and regressive approach to justice.

We as a society have come to understand that drug abuse is a disease that requires treatment, yet our court system increasingly acts as if addicts walk out of the court room completely cured, and then act shocked when they see those same people return. Of course they’re repeat offenders! They’re addicts! They need treatment and some compassion, two things not generally associated with doing hard time in prison.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the phrase, ‘if you file a motion to suppress we will not waive the mandatory’. To remove all discretion from the court in favor of the prosecutor is, in my opinion, vesting far too much discretion in one individual who is not subject to any review whatsoever. And, in the case of nonviolent drug mandatory minimums, the sentencing guidelines are often far under the applicable mandatory.

I cannot envision a veto proof majority in support of this nonsense. All of us who practice criminal defense will raise a voice in unison opposing reinstating the ability of prosecutors to wield Mandatory Minimums like a broadsword– prosecutors who most often have never held any other job and are presumed to possess greater discretion from a sentencing judge.

The application of mandatory minimum sentences have no appellate review. Its just the discretion of someone with a shiny badge they didn’t earn.

The only entity that could possibly have pushed for this would be the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

If you live in Allegheny County, please respectfully contact your Representatives and tell them you oppose this regressive approach to a problem that requires progressive and humane solutions.

Rep. Dom Costa
6808 Greenwood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15206 (412) 361-2040

Rep. Harry Readshaw
1917 Brownsville Rd, Pittsburgh, PA 15210  (412) 881-4208

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