A Black lawmaker is crusading for mandatory minimums. He’s raising a lot of eyebrows

By: - April 1, 2021 7:18 am

State Rep. Amen Brown, D-Philadelphia, speaks at a March 15 press conference on gun violence in Philadelphia. (Pa. House photo)

It’s not often a first-term legislator’s name is on the lips of everyone from the state attorney general to a former House speaker.

But just shy of three months into his Harrisburg career, 33-year-old Democratic Rep. Amen Brown, of Philadelphia, already has been paid a compliment by both.

Brown helped Attorney General Josh Shapiro to convince the biggest promoter of Pennsylvania gun shows to stop selling kits that allow the purchaser to put together their own, untraceable firearm. 

Brown appeared alongside the rumored gubernatorial hopeful at a celebratory press conference last month, and Shapiro thanked him by name.

“He took the time to leave his district and go to the gun show, and see with his own eyes what was happening” at the gun show, Shapiro said of Brown.

And Brown also has the backing of a former Harrisburg power broker in ex-Speaker Bill DeWeese.

Brown “is refreshing in his candor and his indefatigable enthusiasm for both the legislative process and the political mechanisms that undergird it,” DeWeese told the Capital-Star.

But also fueling Harrisburg policymakers’ chatter about the rookie lawmaker — particularly among Brown’s colleagues in the Legislative Black Caucus — is a 412-word memo Brown issued on March 1, titled “Bringing an End to Violent Crime in Pennsylvania.”

The commonwealth’s largest city is on track to set a new record for homicides in a year, according to local media

It matches a nationwide increase in crime, according to a recent study by the Council on Criminal Justice, that may be exacerbated by job loss and hard times from the COVID-19 pandemic, and recent protests against police violence.

The memo, issued to his colleagues to gin up support, notes this, and intones that the “terrorizing of our neighborhoods must stop and those committing these crimes must be held accountable.”

How does Brown propose to do that? With a tool from another era: progressively increasing mandatory minimum sentences for “any previously convicted felon who is found to be in possession of an illegal firearm.”

Brown, who represents a west Philadelphia district and survived a gunshot at age 12, told the Capital-Star his bill was tailored just to take on those who “terrorize communities.”

“Criminals exist, alright? Violent criminals exist. Everybody cannot be rehabilitated,” Brown added.

The exact bill text isn’t yet available. But there’s little evidence such a policy will be effective, experts say. And both parties have spent years trying to build bipartisan opposition to enacting such politically expedient, but in the long term harmful, laws.

Such laws are one of the few things lawmakers can directly change amid rising crime, said Molly Gill, a former prosecutor and now policy director for the criminal justice reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Gill told the Capital-Star that mandatory minimums make no distinction between “active shooters,” or the people who have a gun to commit a crime, and “all the other people who possess guns for various reasons.”

Pennsylvania hasn’t had any mandatory minimums on the books since 2015. 

That year, the state Supreme Court found the process used to implement mandatory minimum sentences unconstitutional, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Legislators, mostly Republicans, have unsuccessfully tried to restore them ever since. 

But a growing body of evidence has found that mandatory minimums, particularly for drug crimes, disproportionately resulted in incarceration Black and brown defendants, Gill said.

More limited research has found the same adverse results from stiff sentencing requirements for firearms related crimes, Gill said, due to racial disparities in plea bargaining.

Those trying to increase minimums have their heart in the right place, Gill added, “but mandatory minimums are not the solution they are looking for. They are going to be counterproductive and have unintended consequences.”

Taking notice

The opposition isn’t just from outside the Capitol.

Two rank-and-file members of Black caucus who talked to the Capital-Star said they opposed new mandatory minimums. But they also said they respect Brown’s viewpoint from his urban district, and noted that his eager coalition building was unusual for a first year lawmaker.

Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, who chairs the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, acknowledged that Brown’s proposal had sparked a lot of internal conversations. 

While Brown may chair the caucus’ public safety committee, Bullock added that the caucus had not endorsed the bill. 

Personally, Bullock also opposed mandatory minimums. She wants the Legislature to focus on increasing the number of criminals who are caught and successfully prosecuted, rather than increasing sentences overall.

“I think that this legislation requires careful examination,” Bullock told the Capital-Star. “But we should at the same time keep an open mind, understanding the unique experience that Rep. Brown brings as a gun violence survivor.”

The bill even earned Brown a call from the governor’s office, according to one source who requested anonymity to discuss the internal legislative process. Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration have opposed mandatory minimums in recent years.

Brown did not confirm or deny such a call. 

“People were calling me from all different offices, from different districts from different organizations,” Brown said. “And they want to know, the reason behind it. The reason behind it is, I understand my community.”

How much his community is buying in could also be up for debate. One of his predecessors in the state House, Movita Johnson-Harrell, has lost two sons to gun violence, and views Brown’s push in two ways.

“The positive is, it’ll probably get a lot of support from the right because they like to see Black and brown people arrested and locked up,” Johnson-Harrell told the Capital-Star. “On the other side it’s not a good thing because it does not address the issue of gun violence.”

Johnson-Harrell argued instead for more investment in violence intervention and prevention programs, and to tackle the social roots of violent crime.

For his part, Brown didn’t disagree that his community needed more state funding. But mandatory minimums “would give us a foundation to start building an actual, safer community.”

Tight cuffs, long sentences

While his Democratic colleagues are skeptical, Brown’s proposal has earned plaudits from Republicans — including one lawmaker whose support Brown needs if he wants the bill to become law.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, told the Capital-Star in an email he has already signed onto Brown’s still-unreleased proposal.

“Rep. Brown understands his community and I share his belief that repeat violent offenders are perpetuating the violence that is destroying his neighborhood,” Kauffman said. “He is a problem solver and I look forward to working together to address this issue.”

As chairman, Kauffman controls the fate of all bills impacting crimes, sentencing, and the courts in the House. As such, Brown’s bill would likely go to the Judiciary Committee, and Kauffman will decide if and when it ever gets a vote.

Brown’s proposal also earned an endorsement from a group that carries a lot of conservative clout.

In an email sent out a day after Brown first floated the bill, Firearms Owners Against Crime, a western Pennsylvania-based gun rights group that sometimes takes positions to the right of the National Rifle Association, told all 203 House lawmakers to back the new mandatory minimums. 

The bill would focus “on the high-risk, very small core group of incorrigible, violent, recidivist criminals,” the group argued.

Their voice likely won’t be as effective with Brown’s Democratic colleagues. One joked that anything the group backed, they automatically opposed.

But for Brown, such an unusual alliance is emblematic of his pragmatic tact that he’s bringing to the Capitol.

“Honestly, I don’t know who’s a Democrat who’s a Republican,” Brown said. “No, seriously. If there’s an issue or there’s something that we’re working on, I don’t say, ‘Oh, well, you’re a Republican, I can’t work with you.’”

This attitude appealed to DeWeese, a western Pennsylvania Democrat who served in Harrisburg from 1976 to 2012. He saw a lot of potential in a young lawmaker uninhibited from making friends all over the state. 

“Amen Brown reminds me of President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous commentary, that ‘it’s not the critic who counts but the one who is actually in the arena,’” DeWeese said.

As a token of their growing relationship, DeWeese even gifted Brown a pin DeWeese received from former Speaker Matt Ryan.

The two met last fall when DeWeese, now a lobbyist, was on a trip to Philadelphia to see allies in organized labor.

DeWeese has also lobbied Harrisburg to enact criminal justice reform, after he spent almost two years in state prison on corruption charges.   

But the former Speaker’s support for Brown hasn’t been dampened by the incumbent’s support for a tough-on-crime measure. In fact, DeWeese agrees with him.

“If you have a felony conviction and are serving years in a state prison, and then you acquire a gun — which is probably the first sentence in your parole paperwork, that you cannot have a gun — and you go out and have a third felony for using that illicit gun, then you should be locked up. The cuffs should be tight and the sentence should be long,” DeWeese told the Capital-Star. 

“Otherwise, I am not in favor of mandatory sentencing,” he added.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.