By Celeste Trusty
All Pennsylvanians want to feel safe in their homes and communities, and reducing gun violence is a concern echoed across the Commonwealth.
Pennsylvania needs proactive, proven solutions to gun violence that prioritize public safety and are responsible with our resources.
Unfortunately, however, we continue to see some Pennsylvania lawmakers introducing bills containing mandatory minimum sentences, despite decades of research showing these laws are ineffective, overly punitive, and waste millions — even billions — of taxpayer dollars.
Mandatory minimum sentences like those proposed this session are outrageously counterproductive. Touting a “tough on crime” stance might sound impressive as a talking point during a press conference, but in reality, mandatory minimums do nothing to reduce gun violence. They are tough on communities, tough on families, and tough on taxpayers — and do nothing to make people safer.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agrees, having invalidated many mandatory minimum sentences for drug and gun offenses in 2015, a decision that has helped fuel the sustained decline in our state’s prison population.
And the results speak for themselves: the most recent FBI Uniform Crime Report data shows that without these mandatory minimums in place, Pennsylvania continues to experience an overall decline in violent crime, homicide, and property crime.
In addition to doing nothing for public safety, mandatory minimum sentencing policies intensify racial disparities within the system.
According to the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, in firearms cases originally eligible for mandatory minimum sentences, white defendants are 10 percent more likely to receive reduced charges, avoiding the mandatory requirement than if they are Latinx; and 20 percent more likely than if they are black.
Communities of color are also disproportionately the victims of violent crime. Instead of using outdated sentencing policies guaranteed to exacerbate racial disparity, Pennsylvania should use successful violence reduction strategies that actually make communities of color safer.
When the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing polled the public about mandatory minimum sentences, they found only 34 percent of respondents could correctly name an offense that required a mandatory minimum.
They also found that more than half of incarcerated people polled admitted they did not think about the sentence they might receive before they offended, and more than half did not know a person must serve the mandatory minimum before parole eligibility.
With the lack of clarity about mandatory minimums both in the public and inside our correctional facilities, enacting new or expanded mandatory penalties will not act as an effective deterrent to gun violence in our communities.
According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the city of Oakland, Calif., reduced its gun homicide rate by nearly half and has seen more than a 50 percent reduction in non-fatal shootings since 2012 after investing in social services, community-based mentoring and support programs, and law enforcement strategies that prioritize treating community members with respect and dignity.
Chicago saw more than a twenty percent reduction in gun violence after just one year of implementing violence reduction and focused law enforcement strategies that aim to meet the needs of communities. Since applying these approaches, Chicago has also experienced a considerable decrease in homicides.
Focused intervention is the key to success in these cities. Mandatory minimums are unfocused: by locking everyone up indiscriminately, they put some of the wrong people in prison too long and waste public safety dollars that could be better spent on nearly anything else.
A recent report from Philadelphia’s Office of the Controller explained that proactively investing $43 million into community-based violence reduction programs over five years could result in a 35 percent decline in homicides in the City, with a projected return on investment of $70 million. In stark contrast, one piece of firearms mandatory minimum legislation reintroduced this session was projected to cost taxpayers more than $67 million over five years if signed into law.
If passed, these mandatory minimums for gun offenses will do nothing more than fill up our prisons and drain resources — all without reducing gun violence or protecting the lives of our neighbors, friends and loved ones. We need to continue moving our Commonwealth forward, not backward.
To effectively reduce gun violence and save lives in the Commonwealth, constituents and communities would be better served investing taxpayer resources in people, not excessive prison sentences. We should be implementing proactive strategies that save lives, not outdated policies that waste money and disproportionately harm Pennsylvania’s communities of color.
Celeste Trusty is the Pennsylvania state policy director for FAMM, an advocacy group that strives for fair and effective justice system that respects our American values of individual accountability and dignity, while keeping our communities safe. She writes from West Chester, Pa.