ShareThis Page

Allegheny County DA Zappala backs bid for return of mandatory minimum sentences

| Tuesday, March 28, 2017, 5:36 p.m.
Allegheny County District Attorney Steven Zappala on Tuesday announced his support for House Bill 741, which would reintroduce mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses and certain violent crimes. Also supporting the bill, and standing behind Zappala, were: 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.

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 ctogneri@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.