The Lead

Facing pushback, Montgomery County lawmaker drops proposal to add mandatory minimums to some gun crimes

By: - December 16, 2019 6:24 pm

State Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, speaks during a rally in the Pa. Capitol rotunda on 9/17/19. He is the House sponsor of legislation authorizing an extreme risk protection order law in Pennsylvania, which proponents say will reduce firearms deaths (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Facing a wave of outrage from advocates and Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, a Montgomery county lawmaker on Monday abandoned a slate of controversial proposals that threatened to sink a long-awaited criminal justice reform package.

Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, announced on the House floor on Monday that he would withdraw all four amendments he’d proposed for a bill in the Justice Reinvestment 2 package, which aims to reduce correctional spending and reinvest savings in community-based projects. 

The amendments included a provision that would recoup money for crime victims by garnishing wages and commissary accounts of prison inmates with outstanding restitution payments. 

A second measure, which drew swift condemnation from sentencing reform advocates and officials in the Wolf administration, would have created new mandatory sentences for people with felony records who unlawfully possess firearms. 

These so-called mandatory minimum sentences became a popular tool of judges and prosecutors during the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 1990s. But critics say that they increase prison sentences and drive up costs while doing little to promote public safety. 

An analysis by the state Department of Corrections found that the sentencing requirements would have added more than 900 new inmates to the state prison system over five years, costing the state $45 million dollars.

The bill Stephens sought to amend was supposed to generate nearly the same amount in cost savings by diverting more offenders into a drug and alcohol treatment program. 

The legislation was approved by the Senate in June and awaits a final vote in the House this week. A spokesman for Wolf said last week that Stephens’ amendment would “derail the years-long effort” of getting the three Justice Reinvestment bills to the governor’s desk. 

These policies have not worked [and] caused many of the flaws with our current system,” the spokesman, J.J. Abbott, said at the time.

Mandatory minimums have fallen out of fashion as states including Pennsylvania attempt to reduce prison populations amid a decade-long drop in violent crime rates. 

But Stephens said harsher sentences would incapacitate the criminals responsible for firearm violence in cities like Philadelphia, where more than 100 children have been shot this year

Speaking from the House floor on Monday evening, the former prosecutor said he would introduce a package of bills on Wednesday to enact stronger sentences for firearm crimes.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.