Mandatory sentencing and drug control

Three years after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the state’s  mandatory sentencing laws unconstitutional, the state’s DAs and some of the other usual law-‘n’-order suspects  managed to get a bill restoring them (even the “school-zone” mandatory, which I thought went out with disco) through the state’s House of Representatives. Today the Judiciary Committee of the State Senate held a hearing on the question.

My prepared remarks are below, after the jump. My oral presentation was somewhat less restrained; after two hours of listening to people assert that objecting to cruel and ineffective punishment proposals must reflect an indifference to the suffering of crime victims, I pretty much lost it: Without raising my voice, I pointed out that the vaunted capacity of prosecutors wielding the threat of long mandatory terms to convert lower-level offenders into “cooperating” witnesses against higher-ups faced the same logical and moral objections as using the threat of torture for the same purpose: the incentive to testify is just as strong for false testimony as for true testimony. If it’s obviously immoral to threaten to break someone’s arms if he won’t testify, and if spending five extra years behind bars is worse than having your arms broken, then why is it considered OK to exact testimony under the threat of an additional five-year prison term?

The broader point is, I think, straightforward. You can decompose the question of mandatories into two sub-questions:

  • Would it be a good idea to have more prisoners than we have now?
  • For any given number of prisoners, will a system of mandatory sentencing – especially for drug offenses – do a better job of crime control than letting the judges decide?

In each case, it seems to me, the answer is obviously “no.” The case on the other side consisted entirely of insisting that crime was a very, very bad thing and ignoring the notion that sentencing has opportunity costs.

I had lots of good company, including Al Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon, John Wetzel and Bret Bucklen of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, former Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsey (now chairing the Pennsylvania Crime Commission), and Kevin Ring of FAMM.  I thought the good guys clearly won the debate on points; who has the votes is, of course, a different question.

Video here. My piece starts at Minute 114. (Look for the thumbs-up from Al Blumstein when I’m done. Made my week.)

Home – Judiciary Committee



Continue reading “Mandatory sentencing and drug control”