Allegheny County DA Zappala backs bid for return of mandatory minimum sentences
Western Pennsylvania law enforcement officials on Tuesday joined colleagues from across the state to urge legislators to reintroduce mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses and violent crimes.
Though such sentencing guidelines were ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in 2015, officials said they need them as a “tool” to investigate particularly heinous crimes and to combat the exploding heroin epidemic.
“My sense is that there is very little disagreement among law enforcement with respect to these particular categories,” Allegheny County District Attorney Steven A. Zappala Jr. said during a news conference at the Allegheny County Courthouse. “We need these tools back.”
Zappala was among those urging passage of House Bill 741, whose supporters say adheres to the state constitution.
He was joined by Shaler police Chief Bryan Kelly, state Rep. Dom Costa, Butler County District Attorney Richard Goldinger, Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone and Baldwin police Chief Michael Scott.
On Monday, law enforcement officials from several eastern counties — including Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties — announced their support for the bill.
A vote is expected in the House next week, said Costa, D-Pittsburgh, who co-wrote the bill.
“We took a look at the most egregious of crimes — crimes against seniors, crimes against children — and naturally with the opioid problem now, we need a little stiffer push in the law,” Costa said. “It gives the district attorneys the ability to use that as an investigative and prosecutorial tool.”
The state Supreme Court ruled mandatory minimum sentences unconstitutional two years ago. At issue was whether defendants were given proper notice of such sentences; Zappala said the new legislation addresses that concern by requiring prosecutors to announce before the trial whether a mandatory minimum sentence will be sought, as opposed to after a conviction.
“We believe this will stand any test in the courts,” Costa said.
The bill would allow prosecutors to seek mandatory minimum sentences for suspects facing a variety of charges, among them: failure to register as a sex predator, violent crimes against seniors and children, drug offenses while carrying a firearm, violent offenses committed on public transportation, gun violations and drug trafficking to minors.
Without mandatory minimums, low- and mid-level drug dealers may face no jail time after a conviction, officials said. Such results hamper investigators' ability to turn suspects into informants and eventually arrest “kingpins,” officials said.
“Right now, we do not have the tools as prosecutors ... to really get these people out of circulation,” Vittone said. “This is something we definitely need in the midst of this heroin and fentanyl epidemic.”
Challenges await from the American Civil Liberties Union and state Department of Corrections.
A 2009 study from the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing suggested that mandatory minimum sentences do not reduce crime.
Asked to cite a case in which mandatory minimum sentencing would have benefited prosecutors, Zappala could not.
However, he added: “Sometimes it's a matter of principle.
“If you're going to target a senior citizen and rape that person, I mean, that's an evil person,” he said. “I think there should be messages sent to the public on occasion. Some of this is practical, and some of this is a matter of principle.”
Chris Togneri is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.