Minimum Mandatory Sentencing Back for Non-Violent Federal Drug Offenders

Just as Pennsylvania legislators weigh reinstatement of mandatory minimum sentencing for certain drug offenses, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered prosecutors to pursue the “most serious” provable offense in federal drug cases.

Sessions’ directive was a sharp turnaround from the policy set by his predecessor Eric Holder, who asked that prosecutors avoid filing charges that imposed mandatory minimums against non-violent drug offenders.

In April, the Pennsylvania House approved a so-called “tough-on-crime” bill, despite a 2009 bipartisan state report indicating that while mandatory minimum sentences fail to reduce crime or recidivism, they do lead to higher costs for taxpayers.

A History of Mandatory Minimum Sentences

As our experienced Scranton criminal defense attorneys know, mandatory minimum sentencing was first introduced at the federal level back in the 1980s to combat the cocaine epidemic and associated crimes. Pennsylvania jumped aboard the bandwagon in the 1990s. These statutes allow prosecutors to score stiff penalties for defendants convicted of certain offenses involving firearms, violence and drugs. However, one of the major downsides was that judges lost their discretionary power.

States started to take a giant step back from these laws sometime around 2000, mostly over the snowballing costs of incarceration. Federal prisons have been no stranger to this, as a bipartisan task force recommended in 2016 scaling back the number of federal inmates by 60,000 over the course of 10 years. But even that would only scratch the surface of the problem, as most inmates are serving time in state courts.

Our Scranton criminal defense lawyers can explain that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down minimum mandatory sentencing laws in 2013 (Alleyne v. U.S.) and in Pennsylvania two years later (Pennsylvania v. Hopkins). Justices at both levels held minimum mandatory sentences were illegal if laws did not require a jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the amount of drugs was material to the crime, and thus warranted a longer minimum prison sentence.

The Pennsylvania bill would reinstate minimum mandatory sentences according to this rule. The mandatory sentences would be imposed for certain drug offenses, as well as violent crimes against vulnerable persons and failure to register as a sex offender.

The measure passed the House and is now being considered in the Senate.

Opposing Views

Prosecutors are advocating for the change by arguing it is an effective means to combat the state’s opioid and heroin epidemic, and saying it’s necessary to consider the feelings and rights of the victims/ loved ones left behind. However, opponents (who include Pennsylvania’s top prison warden, judges, and criminal law professors) argue this kind of sentencing schema does little to deter crime. Rather, it packs our jails with a disproportionate number of minority, poverty-stricken offenders who are nonviolent.

While proponents of the Pennsylvania bill argue the goal is to target high-level offenders, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel is among those who have testified historical evidence of both state and federal prison data show more often than not, it’s the “little fish” who are ensnared. There is also concern that the House bill is poorly drafted, and will ultimately result in many addicts and low-risk users being trapped in prison for years-long sentences that will do little if anything to halt the flow of drugs onto our streets.

Opponents say if they were ever going to support the introduction of minimum mandatory sentences, it would be with very precise language that makes it clear the goal is targeting high-level, violent offenders.

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