A West Philly Dem is going tough on crime. Progressives say his bill is ‘terrifyingly awful’

An empty jail cell

Empty jail cell (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

A freshman Philadelphia Democrat has set off a firestorm in Harrisburg by proposing a bill that would establish new mandatory minimum sentences — an approach much more in line with Republicans’ criminal justice platform than his own party’s.

State Rep. Amen Brown, who took office in January, is pushing legislation that would make sweeping criminal justice changes in two areas. First, it would create new mandatory minimum sentences for people with prior criminal records who are arrested and convicted of gun-related offenses; second it would allow people with certain priors to be held without bail.

In an interview, Brown said he’s trying to “get the conversation started” about addressing the historic spike in gun violence in cities like Philadelphia.

“Visiting prisons, talking to lifers, talking to people who were convicted of attempted murders and things of that nature … and then talking to police captains and lieutenants and different law enforcement agencies and getting the facts, the facts came back that there’s a small percentage of repeat offenders committing the same violent crimes,” said Brown.

Rep. Amen Brown (Courtesy of Amen Brown)

The West Philly rep says he knows that Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat with a long history of opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing, “isn’t signing a mandatory minimum … so in reality, it would never become law.”

The bill, though, has caught the attention of many in the legislature.

In a press conference Monday, criminal justice reform advocates — with whom the legislature’s Democratic caucuses, and in particular, the Philadelphia delegation, are increasingly aligned — called the effort confounding and counterproductive.

“It’s a high threshold here, but this may be the worst criminal justice bill that we’ve seen,” said Elizabeth Randol, legislative director for Pennsylvania’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “We’ve seen a lot of bad bills. This one is astonishingly and terrifyingly awful.”

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, City Councilmember Kendra Brooks, and Molly Gill of the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums were among the speakers.

“This legislation is an absolute outrage,” Krasner said. “There is not one Philadelphia legislator who should support this without paying the price of being voted out of office.”

Brown’s bill is sprawling. It would specifically affect people who have, within the last five years, been convicted of a felony that resulted in a ruling that they should no longer have possession of a firearm.

If that person is then rearrested — for a wide range of crimes, including criminal trespass and burglary, which don’t necessarily involve use of a gun — and found to have a gun within arm’s length, the bill allows them to be denied bail. Then, it sets forth a new, tiered system of mandatory sentences based on their new conviction, prior convictions, and whether they were probation or parole when the new offense happened.

Randol notes, in some cases the bill seems, to her, to be baldly unconstitutional. She uses an example of a person who was previously convicted of a crime and barred from possessing a gun, is on probation, and then is newly convicted of misdemeanor simple assault and is found to have a gun.

Under current law, the maximum penalty for that crime is two years. Under Brown’s bill, it appears the mandatory minimum for that offense would be ten years.

“They’re establishing a mandatory minimum that exceeds the statutory maximum of the offense that you have been charged with,” Randol said. “It’s crazy. I’m like, maybe this is a drafting error?”

Brown didn’t immediately respond to a request for clarification.

Initially, Brown’s bill had the support of a number of fellow Democrats. Several rank-and-file members confirmed, however, that its full language wasn’t available for many of those co-sponsors to read until recently.

The bill became a top behind-the-scenes topic of conversation among House Democrats when it was put on the Judiciary agenda for Tuesday. Then, when the ACLU, Krasner, and other reform groups began speaking out about it, it appeared to begin hemorrhaging Democratic support.

At the beginning of the day on Monday, the bill’s Democratic co-sponsors included Philadelphia Representatives Stephen Kinsey, MaryLouise Isaacson, Darisha Parker, and Regina Young, as well as Tina Davis (D-Bucks), Frank Burns (D-Cambria), Mary Jo Daley, and Allegheny County’s Nick Pisciottano and Brandon Markosek.

As the afternoon wore on, however, Isaacson, Davis, Daley, and Markosek all dropped their support. None were immediately available to comment on the change.

None of the GOP sponsors of Brown’s bill appear to have dropped their support.

The dynamic introduced by Brown’s bill disrupts what, in recent years, had become a predictable partisan breakdown: Democrats generally oppose mandatory minimums and Republicans support them.

Mandatory minimum sentences first caught on in Pennsylvania in the 1990s. At the time, the commonwealth, like many states, started meting out tougher sentences based on factors like proximity of a firearm or possession of a certain quantity of drugs.

But states began changing course after a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Justices had ruled that harsh minimums weren’t constitutional if the factors that triggered them — like the presence of drugs or a gun — hadn’t been found material to the underlying case by a jury. In 2015, Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court found that many of the commonwealth’s mandatory sentences — specifically ones related to gun and drug crimes — were unconstitutional based on the federal court’s ruling.

Since then, Republicans have pushed consistently to reinstate some of them, carefully attempting to skirt the court’s ruling. In their opposition efforts, Democrats often cite studies showing that the harsher sentences are predominantly given to Black people.

Brown’s bill is actually one of two on mandatory minimums currently sitting in the GOP-controlled state House’s Judiciary Committee, poised for a vote by committee members Tuesday.

The other is from a Republican, Todd Stephens of Montgomery County, who has for years been spearheading the GOP effort to reimpose mandatory minimum sentences. Randol called his latest attempt — which the ACLU opposes — “clever.”

It would essentially make it harder for judges to hand down sentences outside the official guidelines from the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing — which Stephens chairs. If a judge wants to give a penalty that is more lenient than the shortest sentence laid out by the commission, they have to provide “a substantial and compelling reason that an injustice would occur by applying the required sentence.”

The bill also creates several instances in which a judge can’t deviate from the sentencing guidelines at all — including that the defendant was previously convicted of a crime punishable by more than two years in prison.

The result, Randol and other reform advocates say, is a de facto mandatory minimum.

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