Is It Time For Pennsylvania to Reform Drug Sentencing?

Recent news stories are old news for criminal defense attorneys: our prisons are filling up with drug offenders. Incarceration is a huge expense for the taxpayers – locking someone up in a Pennsylvania state prison costs about $42,000 per year. (www.vera.org). Criminal defense lawyers might consider forming alliances with taxpayer groups, and other reformers to reconsider this policy.

What is missing from these stories is any evidence that locking people up has solved the drug problem: a person wanting to buy drugs in Central Pennsylvania (or anywhere else) is still able to do so.

Federal Drug Sentencing Reform

The federal laws for drug crimes involve lengthy, mandatory prison sentences, with little room for Judges to consider the individual factors in particular cases. Attorney General Eric Holder has proposed reducing prison sentences for many nonviolent drug traffickers. A Senate bill, with bipartisan support, would accomplish this by reducing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and giving judges more freedom to set shorter sentences if deemed appropriate.

Pennsylvania’s Criminal Sentencing Laws

In Pennsylvania, there are three separate sets of rules for determining criminal sentences. The statutes, either the Crimes Code, or the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device And Cosmetic Act, set the maximum penalty that can be imposed. The Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission has guidelines, which consider the nature of the offense, and the Defendant’s prior criminal record, to determine a standard minimum sentence. The Guidelines permit a Judge to consider aggravating and mitigating factors before imposing a sentence. In addition to these rules, separate laws have required mandatory minimum sentences for certain types of crimes.

Mandatory minimums determine the amount of time that must be served before a person is eligible for parole. Unlike the typical case, where the defense attorney argues for mercy, and the prosecutor asks for a lengthy sentence, in a case subject to mandatory sentencing, there is much less for the lawyers to argue about: a sentence less than the minimum cannot be imposed.

Mandatory Sentences for Drug Crimes in Pennsylvania

There are a number of laws that require mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. The list is long, and the laws do get changed from time to time. Some of these laws have been found to be unconstitutional because they deny Defendants the right to have a jury decide the facts that are used to determine the sentence.

These laws include sale or delivery of a drug within 1,000 feet of a school, or where a firearm is involved. At first glance, this makes sense – most of us would be appalled to see someone selling drugs in a schoolyard. But the 1,000 foot rule is more than a bit irrational: it includes sales that occur in a private residence that happens to be in the neighborhood of a school. Changing the location by a few feet one way or the other could determine how long someone spends in prison. The idea that prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers need to go out on the streets and measure where something happened is a sign of an irrational sentencing scheme.

Drug Crimes in Blair County

A criminal defense lawyer in Blair County should be aware of two aspects of the local court system. Blair County Judges have imposed some extremely lengthy sentences in drug cases – in a number of cases, sentencing defendants to decades in prison. At the same time, Blair County has been innovative in establishing a Drug Court, which offers treatment for non-violent drug offenders.

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