How a debate over mandatory sentences for gun crimes could sink savings gleaned from a criminal justice reform bill

(Flickr/Matthias Müller)

When the state House Judiciary Committee approved a set of bills last month imposing mandatory minimum sentences for certain firearm offenses, criminal justice reform advocates decried it as a step backwards in a years-long effort to reduce prison spending and change the way the state approaches law and order issues. 

The bills face an uncertain fate in the state Senate, where Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, has been hesitant to endorse the controversial sentencing practices. 

But the Republican-controlled House committee is reportedly preparing alternative plans to get the mandatory minimum proposals to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk. 

An official in the Department of Corrections told the Capital-Star that some of the new sentencing proposals may be amended into Justice Reinvestment Initiative 2, a reform package currently before the House Judiciary Committee that aims to cut corrections costs and reinvest the savings in community-based public safety policies.

The maneuver would represent a compromise of sorts between tough-on-crime lawmakers and reformers who want to cut costs in the criminal justice system by reforming sentencing practices and diverting non-violent offenders from prison. 

But experts say harsher sentencing laws stand to increase prison populations and offset any cost savings from the reinvestment bills, which are a chief priority for the Wolf administration. 

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“They’re completely different policies,” Bret Bucklen, research director for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said. “For all purposes, this kills [the reinvestment package].”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Kauffman, R- Franklin, said he was “not at liberty” to discuss the status of the criminal justice reform bills, which are the topic of ongoing negotiations among lawmakers and stakeholders. 

“There are many legislative concepts that have gone through the process that are being discussed,” Kauffman said when asked about a reform package that includes mandatory minimum sentences. “Could that be one of them? It could possibly be one of them.”

But Bucklen told the Capital-Star on Monday that his office is working to quantify the impact of a Justice Reinvestment package that includes “multiple mandatory minimum” statutes, including a potential mandatory sentence for certain drug offenses.

Corrections officials haven’t seen the proposed amendment yet. 

But based on discussions with House committee members, Bucklen said, they expect the new sentences will be added to a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware, that would change state sentencing guidelines to make it easier for people with addiction to enter a diversionary treatment program.

Killion’s bill is expected to generate $45 million in savings over five years, according to an analysis by the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

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It got unanimous approval from the Senate on June 5, along with two other bills that would distribute the savings to county probation offices and victim service agencies. 

But Bucklen said the savings and the proposed reinvestments would be “totally wiped out” by new mandatory minimum sentences, which drive up corrections costs by increasing the length of prison sentences. 

All of the JRI bills are currently awaiting a vote in the House Judiciary Committee. Killion told the Capital-Star Monday that he hadn’t heard of any proposed amendments. 

A handful of states currently have some form of mandatory minimum sentencing for gun offenses, including for illegal possession of firearms by felons, according to the gun reporting website The Trace. 

Proponents say such policies make sentencing more consistent. But critics from both sides of the political aisle can point to a bevy of evidence showing they drive up spending while doing little to deter crime. 

A 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, found that mandatory minimum sentencing for gun crimes did not affect crime rates. 

There’s also ample evidence that mandatory minimums for drug-related offenses are “less cost-effective than other means” of reducing drug use, according to the nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Bucklen said that Pennsylvania can look to its own recent history for proof of those trends. 

Since the state Supreme Court invalidated Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in 2015, the state has saved more than $20 million in corrections costs while also seeing its crime rates drop, Bucklen said.

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