“These mandatory minimum sentences are perhaps a good example of the law of unintended consequences . . . “
– U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist
The Objective of Mandatory Minimums – A Double-Edged Sword
While it is unclear whether former Chief Justice Rehnquist was referring to all mandatory minimum sentences as a policy or simply a subset of them, there is little question that mandatory minimum sentences are a bit of a double-edged sword. They may look good on paper – ensuring consistent and rational sentencing policy throughout all courts, and promoting fairer and more uniform sentencing practices – but mandatory minimums, in reality, lead to some unintended, and unjust, results. This is clearly seen with Pennsylvania’s sentencing guidelines.
Indeed, there is an inherent tension in the criminal justice policies behind mandatory minimum sentences. On the one hand, we do not want judges from different courts to give two people who committed the same crime vastly different sentences. A modicum of consistency in sentences from court to court is a good thing, flowing from the moral principle enshrined on the U.S. Supreme Court building: “Equal Justice Under Law.”
On the other hand, we do not want such rigid sentencing formulas that a judge cannot exercise his or her own discretion to ensure that the punishment fits the crime based on each defendant’s specific circumstances. Equal justice also means fairness for each person based on his or her individual situation.
Therein lies the tension: uniformity versus individualized punishment. Those two competing goals are both important as a policy matter. That is where mandatory minimums come into play. In the aggregate, mandatory minimums try to incorporate both goals. They attempt to set some uniformity in sentencing based upon the type of crime, while also allowing judges to depart upward or downward from the recommended sentence based upon a defendant’s individual circumstances. This can be seen in both the federal and Pennsylvania’s sentencing guidelines.
The term “mandatory minimum,” however, expresses that there is a minimum punishment for each crime. Stated differently, it creates a baseline, or floor, under which a sentence should not go. Thus, a minimum set too high could result in the kind of prison overcrowding we see in our prisons throughout the country.
Pennsylvania’s Mandatory Minimum Framework
The Pennsylvania General Assembly created the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing in 1978. The purpose of the Commission was to create a consistent and rational statewide sentencing policy that would increase sentencing severity for serious crimes and promote fairer and more uniform sentencing practices.
The General Assembly directed the Commission to adopt sentencing guidelines that would be “considered by the sentencing court in determining the appropriate sentence for defendants who plead guilty or nolo contendere to, or who were found guilty of, felonies and misdemeanors.” Essentially, the guidelines were meant to find equality and fairness in sentencing such that each judge had a single reference to consult in sentencing individuals.
The most common mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania involve convictions for the following offenses:
- Driving Under the Influence (DUI).
- Drug offenses involving possession with the intent to deliver. (Note: the mandatory minimum depends on the amount of the drugs and a defendant’s criminal history).
- Possession with the intent to deliver when a gun is in close proximity to the drug transaction.
- Violent crimes like aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, or rape.
The Pennsylvania House and Senate Judiciary Committees review the Commission’s regulations regularly.
The History of the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines
The first set of Pennsylvania’s Sentencing Guidelines became effective in 1982. They were amended in 1983 and 1986. In 1987, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court took a major step and invalidated all the sentencing guidelines due to a procedural error in the legislative process when the first set of guidelines were coming into effect. Shortly thereafter, however, in 1988 the guidelines were re-promulgated with the General Assembly’s unanimous support.
Since that time, the Commission has regularly reviewed and revised Pennsylvania’s sentencing guidelines as follows:
- Amendments in 1991 helped identify defendants for the new “county intermediate punishment” program, and later for the new “boot camp” program.
- A major review of the guidelines occurred in 1994, with additional revisions in 1997 and 2005 to accommodate new Driving Under the Influence (DUI) laws.
- In 2008, the guidelines were revised to encourage greater use of alternative sentencing options, such as fines, community service, and intermediate punishments.
- In 2012, the Commission adopted the 7th Edition Sentencing Guidelines. That edition of the guidelines has been formally amended a number of times. Namely, in 2013, the guidelines were amended to address sentencing enhancements related to child abuse and arson. In 2015, another amendment was adopted to incorporate new laws on human trafficking. In 2017, an amendment was adopted to address (i) offenses involving burglary of a home and bodily injury crimes committed, threatened or attempted, (ii) persons not to possess firearms, (iii) homicide by vehicle and convictions relating to text-based communications, and (iv) aggravated assault by vehicle
To speak with a sentencing professional about Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimums, or the federal Sentencing Guidelines contact Brandon Sample, Esq. With experience in sentencing matters throughout the country, attorney, advocate, author, and activist Brandon Sample, Esq. can provide you with the highest quality service. Call 802-444-HELP to learn more.