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State Senate to consider mandatory minimum prison sentences

House Bill 741 is a topic of heated debate in Pennsylvania. This proposed bill would reinstate mandatory minimum prison sentences in Pennsylvania for some violent crime and drug-related offenses. It recently came before the House and was advanced to the Senate for final determination.

Proponents of this bill believe that pre-determined, fixed sentences imposed by the Legislature will help guarantee uniformity in the state criminal system, ensuring that all defendants charged with certain crimes are subject to the same minimum sentence.

However, opponents do not agree with this sentencing policy, arguing that the fate of defendants would rest in the hands of prosecutors, who have discretion at the initial charging phase. Many believe that this seemingly race-neutral bill would have an adverse effect on minorities, who continue to receive disparate treatment when it comes to crime and punishment.

Opponents further argue that the mandatory minimums would not allow judges to take into account aggravating and mitigating factors when imposing sentences. Thus, a low- level co-conspirator in an alleged drug crime could face the same sentence as the kingpin. Proponents, however, point out that the bill would allow the government to obtain more criminal convictions of higher level offenders by using low level offenders to obtain incriminating evidence in exchange for reduced sentences.

Another point of contention is whether the bill is cost-effective. Opponents believe that the $50-80 million in taxes it would cost to institute mandatory minimums would be better spent on things like education and rehabilitation. Proponents stress the deterrent effect that such harsh sentences would have, thereby preventing the commission of such crimes that would drive up tax costs in the first place.

Similar bills were rejected by the Pennsylvania State Senate in past years, but it remains to be seen what the final word will be on House Bill 741. Regardless of the outcome of the legislative process, though, ensuring a staunch defense against any and all criminal charges is the best way to counteract the potential of harsh sentencing.

Source: The Morning Call, "PA House advances bill on mandatory minimum prison sentences", Steve Esack, April 4, 2017

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