House adds mandatory minimums to high-profile justice reform bills

Many Democrats and some Republicans say mandatory minimum sentences are ineffective and biased against black people. The GOP committee chair says he ‘doesn’t see color.’

  • Katie Meyer

(Harrisburg) — After months of negotiation, the state House has moved a package of criminal justice reform bills through committee.  The result is a bipartisan compromise — but thanks to several last-minute amendments, many Democratic lawmakers aren’t happy with it.

The three proposals that make up the second phase of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, or JRI 2, would create a parole advisory committee aimed at helping counties, expand compensation for crime victims, and allow automatic parole for some low-level offenders.

The House Judiciary Committee voted to substantially change that last measure, adding an amendment reinstating mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of raping or otherwise harming minors.

Allegheny County Democratic Representative Dan Miller said even for serious crimes, he thinks it’s bad policy.

“Mandatory minimums are not criminal justice reform…especially in how it impacts people of color and people of limited economic means,” he said, after joining a handful of his Democratic colleagues in voting against the amendment.

Opposition to the provision wasn’t totally partisan. Franklin County Republican Paul Schemel spoke out against it as well, noting that “nearly every other state is doing reforms that eliminate mandatory minimums.”

“We have judges,” he said. “We have sentencing guidelines. We should let them do their work.”

Supporters of mandatory minimum sentences tend to say they help get violent offenders off the streets, and argue they should ultimately reduce crime rates. Opponents—including Democratic Governor Tom Wolf and Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel—say they’re ineffective and needlessly inflate prison populations.

Studies have shown that the harsher sentences are predominantly given to black people.

“I think that some people’s thought process on criminal justice maybe was influenced by the 1990s,” Miller said. “I think they probably got stuck there.”

GOP Judiciary Committee Chair Rob Kauffman, of Franklin County, sponsored the amendment, and said even people who dislike mandatory sentences should support it.

“I don’t know many child rapists who can be rehabilitated, so I’d like to keep them behind bars,” he said.

He added that he doesn’t think complaints about the practice, including ones about race, hold water.

“I don’t see color. I like to not get into that when I’m talking about public policy issues,” he said.

The JRI 2 wasn’t the only matter lawmakers tackled Monday. Another high-profile bill that moved out of committee aims to reduce the time Pennsylvanians spend on probation.

The initial version of the measure would have capped probation terms at five years, but in a compromise agreement that dismayed many of the committee’s Democrats, the amended version that ultimately passed would require a judge’s review before probation can be lifted.

The state’s first Justice Reinvestment Initiative was enacted in 2012, in hopes of cutting corrections costs by getting people out of prison, and keeping them from reoffending.

The goal for this second phase is similar. The Senate already approved it, and the package now goes to the full House for consideration.

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