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Commission Calls for Reforming Pa. Mandatory Sentencing Laws

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The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing is calling on lawmakers to give judges more leeway in sentencing drug offenders, ease penalties for cocaine possession and amend the state's Drug-Free School Zones law, the Delaware County Daily Times reported Dec. 7.

The commission report (PDF) concluded that imposing mandatory sentences had no bearing on recidivism rates, and executive director Mark Bergstrom said that the sentences were more commonly used as leverage than actually imposed on offenders.

“If the purpose for the mandates that we looked at was to assist prosecutors in negotiating pleas, I think we would have found mandates are successful in that area,” Bergstrom said.  “And we recognize that that can be a useful tool, but we didn't see that as one of the reasons the mandate was created in the first place.”

However, once a mandatory sentence is applied, it prevents judges from using their discretion to impose a penalty that actually might prevent recidivism, experts said.

The commission recommended raising the amount of cocaine required to trigger mandatory penalties from 2 grams to 5 grams, saying the lower threshold often captured drug users selling to support their own habit rather than the major traffickers the law was intended to target. Offering addiction treatment to lower-level offenders would be more effective in preventing recidivism than imposing mandatory prison time, the study said.

A mandatory two-year prison term for selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school also should be repealed, the commission said, contending that overlapping zones effectively encompass entire urban communities.

The 500-page report was ordered by the state legislature in 2007.

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