One of the many issues that continue to threaten our criminal justice system in Allegheny County is the resurfacing of mandatory minimum sentences, in the midst of the opioid epidemic. As a former prosecutor, public defender, law professor, sole attorney of a private criminal defense firm and candidate for the Allegheny County District Attorney, I am adamantly opposed to mandatory minimums as they only contribute to mass incarceration, remove judicial discretion and devastate families in our county.
As I travel around the county, I am often asked about my stance on the mandatory sentences for those that are charged with drug offenses. For the conversation of mandatory minimums to be up for consideration, it clearly demonstrates that our legislature has failed to learn anything from the last drug crisis this nation faced in the late 80’s and early 90’s with the insurgence of crack cocaine into many urban communities.
Mandatory minimum prison sentences stripped the power away from the judges who were elected to make those decisions and to render sentences for those that are charged with drug offenses. Despite many mitigating factors a lawyer may argue on behalf of the person charged, a judge was lawfully bound by the mandatory minimum prison sentence with absolutely no discretion. It essentially gave prosecutors the ability to act as both judge and prosecutor, which is fundamentally flawed and clearly at odds with the notion that the prosecutors purpose is to seek justice, not convictions.
Again, I am adamantly opposed to the re-institution of mandatory minimum sentences. Far too often, users fall victim to these sentences, when in reality, the mandatory laws were created to target the dealer. Additionally, prosecutors can pick and choose when they impose mandatory sentences. If you look back at how these policies were enforced during the crack-cocaine epidemic, minority defendants felt the brunt of the imposition of mandatory sentencing.
To those who have ears, let them hear: We cannot prosecute and incarcerate our way out of a public health crisis. The “tough on crime” approach to the crack cocaine epidemic failed miserably and there is no reason to think it will work this time around with opioids. It is time for a more innovative and cost-effective approach.
More focus should be placed on treatment and alternatives to incarceration. We need to expand the use of diversionary programs and treatment courts to deal with the heavy influx of citizens, struggling with addictions, who are coming into contact with the criminal justice system.
Thankfully, lawmakers are now appearing to treat the current opioid crisis with a much higher level of compassion than the approach that was taken with the crack cocaine epidemic. After being incarcerated, people dealing with addiction are likely to use once they are released. Unfortunately, by then their tolerance for the drug has diminished which increases the likelihood for overdoses and deaths.
In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the use of mandatory minimum sentences was invalidated after a United States Supreme Court case declared the statute unconstitutional in 2015. However, House Bill 741 will attempt to reinstate these sentences. Despite the absence of any concrete proof that these sentences deter crime or prevent recidivism, the bill has support across the state. The idea of prosecuting low-level, non-violent drug offenders and drug users is nonsensical and a clear waste of resources.
We have a lot of work ahead of us. The criminal justice system needs to be closely examined, and we cannot continue to travel down this path of repetition in dealing with this current crisis. We must adjust and think about the concept of true justice and what it means within the confines of the criminal justice system.
– Turahn Jenkins
#TJforDA #JusticeForAll #NoExceptions