Most Pennsylvanians would agree that ensuring public safety is what they want most from the criminal justice system. When it comes to law and order, we are all willing to pay to be safe, and we recognize that decisions about public safety must never be made based simply on balancing budgets. At the same time, many Pennsylvanians are uninformed about a current policy discussion underway in our criminal justice system, which is mostly going unnoticed and hides under the false guise of improving public safety. The debate is over mandatory minimum sentencing.
Several mandatory minimum sentencing laws were found to be unconstitutional by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2015. Legislation to reinstate these laws are right now being considered by the General Assembly, which might be fine if there was any evidence that mandatory minimum sentences enhanced public safety. But the record is clear that they don’t.
Statewide crime numbers are only available through 2015, but show that the violent crime rate in Pennsylvania remained the same in 2015, while both property and drug crime rates declined. Local statistics from Philadelphia and Harrisburg reveal that crime rates for major crime types dropped in these cities during 2016. Crime in Pennsylvania is lower now than it was in 1970, before mandatory minimums existed. If mandatory minimums are supposed to enhance public safety, this is not reflected in Pennsylvania’s crime rates, which have continued to drop without them.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require courts to treat all defendants the same, regardless of the facts of the case or the person’s circumstances. This one-size-fits-all approach does not work when it comes to health care or education policy, so why should we think it works in criminal justice?
Some prosecutors argue that mandatory minimums are needed because some judges are too lenient. The fact is that judicial discretion is already structured in Pennsylvania under sentencing guidelines. Judges in Pennsylvania sentence within the recommended guidelines 90 percent of the time, and the 7 percent of cases where judges depart below the guidelines is mostly due to a recommendation by the prosecutor. Sentencing guidelines render mandatory minimum sentences unnecessarily rigid.
There is no good evidence that mandatory minimums do anything to make the public safer. Take one purpose of sentencing, to deter future criminal behavior. The science on deterrence is now clear that it is the swiftness and certainty of punishment that deters, not the severity. Mandatory minimums target the severity of punishment by unnecessarily ratcheting up sentence lengths. For criminals who tend to be impulsive, inconsistently delivered and arbitrarily long sentences do nothing to deter future crime. A study by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing found that the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence was not a predictor of criminal re-offending.
Mandatory minimum sentencing wastes taxpayer dollars and diverts limited resources away from pursuing more serious offenders and supporting law enforcement. Estimates are that if Pennsylvania’s legislature reinstates mandatory minimums, it could cost taxpayers as much as $85.5 million per year.
For all of these reasons, a bipartisan consensus has built around the country that mandatory minimums are ineffective and should be scaled back or eliminated. More than 30 states have now reconsidered mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Conservative groups like Koch Industries, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Commonwealth Foundation here in Pennsylvania, have all expressed opposition to mandatory minimums. Yet many in our legislature are ignoring these realities and moving forward to quietly reinstate mandatory minimums. This puts Pennsylvania out of touch with the facts.
Dr. Kristofer “Bret” Bucklen is the director of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ Office of Planning, Research & Statistics. John E. Wetzel is the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.