Montgomery County lawmaker moves to add mandatory minimum sentences to criminal justice bills

Montgomery County Republican Rep. Todd Stephens, vice-chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

If a former prosecutor-turned-state lawmaker gets his way, Pennsylvania may soon have stronger penalties for illegal firearm possession. 

But Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, may first encounter stiff opposition from criminal justice reform advocates, who say his proposal relies on outdated sentencing policies that stand to drive up prison populations. 

Stephens offered changes to a state Senate bill on Wednesday that would create mandatory minimum prison sentences for convicted felons who use or possess firearms illegally.

State and federal laws prohibit anyone convicted of a felony from possessing guns.

Violating that law is a first-degree felony offense. Under the amendment Stephens proposed, convictions would carry a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years in prison.

His language would also classify the offense as a Crime of Violence. That designation makes it subject to Pennsylvania’s three strikes sentencing law, which requires escalating penalties for repeat violent offenders.

The Senate bill that Stephens is looking to amend is sponsored by fellow suburban Philadelphia lawmaker, Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware.

It’s one of three pieces of legislation that comprise Justice Reinvestment Initiative 2, a package of bills designed to cut corrections costs and reinvest the savings in community-based public safety policies.

Officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections told the Capital-Star in October that adding harsher sentencing laws to the bills would defeat the purpose of the reform package, which is a chief priority for the Wolf administration. 

Killion’s bill is expected to generate $45 million in savings over five years by increasing enrollment in a diversionary program for drug and alcohol treatment, an analysis by the Senate Appropriations Committee found.

But Department of Corrections researchers predict that Stephens’ amendments would add 915 inmates to the state prison population over the same time period, wiping out all the potential savings from Killion’s bill, spokeswoman Maria Finn said Wednesday.

Wolf’s spokesman said Wednesday night that the amendments, which must be approved by the House and ratified by the Senate in votes slated to take place next week, “would [likely] derail this entire years-long effort.”

“These policies have not worked, caused many of the flaws with our current system, and would undo nearly all of our efforts to curb costs and facilitate actual rehabilitation,” spokesman JJ Abbot said in an emailed statement. “We strongly oppose them.”

This isn’t the first time Stephens has tried to create mandatory sentences for violent offenders.

The amendment he proposed Wednesday closely mirrors language from another bill he introduced earlier this year, which the House Judiciary Committee approved in September. The House has also passed similar proposals Stephens introduced in previous legislative sessions. 

Pennsylvania hasn’t adopted new mandatory minimum sentencing laws since 2015, when a state Supreme Court ruling found the state’s mandatory sentences for drug offenses were unconstitutional.

But the policies remain in favor among tough-on-crime lawmakers who say they promote public safety by keeping violent offenders off the streets. 

Criminal justice reform advocates and fiscal conservatives, meanwhile, say mandatory minimum sentences diminish judicial discretion lead to more draconian prison sentences.

They also say that mandatory minimums do little to deter crime — a point that has ample evidence supporting it. The nonpartisan RAND corporation found that mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses are “less cost-effective than other means” of reducing drug use.

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

But Stephens said on Wednesday that deterrence wasn’t his main goal. He argued that harsher, more consistent sentences for gun crimes could mitigate gun violence by “incapacitating” would-be shooters.

“A lot of people in the Capitol talk about wanting to address gun violence,” Stephens said. “So let’s take people off the streets.”

This story was updated on Thursday, Dec. 12 to include comments from Wolf’s office.

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