What is keeping legislators from embracing real change?
Last week, when I wrote and published Part I in the blog, it was exactly 17 years after the Reading Eagle published my op-ed piece in March 1997. The subject of the viewpoint was prison overcrowding caused by removing sentencing discretion from the judiciary. In 1982, when the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing was created in Pennsylvania, the legislator’s own study from the previous year concluded that the length of sentences in the state would double as a result of the commission’s implementation! Guess what? That’s what happened. In fact, Pennsylvania’s state penitentiary population tripled in just 15 years between 1982 and 1997 when it had not even increased in the 40 years before 1980.
The state’s department of corrections prison population showed no increase whatsoever in state prison population between 1940 and 1980. Each year it averaged 7,000 inmates. Today it is seven times greater than it was in 1980. What caused these distressing results?
Only two years after the 1982 effective date for the commission to begin its work, Pennsylvania began the greatest new prison construction epidemic in its history, opening 16 new prisons in the 14 years beginning, ironically, in 1984. The keystone state had only a total of 11 prisons in its history prior to 1984!
The April 5, 1997 symposium was held at Albright College. It was attended by Senator Stewart Greenleaf, chairman of the very same Senate Judiciary Committee which just finished its study of prison overcrowding and alternative sentencing. Sen. Greenleaf, a republican from Montgomery County, is the longest serving Pennsylvania senator to date. Tom Caltigerone, a Berks County democrat, was present as well, as was Berks County state senator, the late Michael A. O’Pake. Today, Tom is the longest serving Pennsylvania representative in the house. He, along with Sen. Greenleaf speak often to voters and colleagues about this problem and the need for alternative punishments, which are the same solutions I endorse. But the opposite of alternative punishment is 1) mandatory minimum sentencing, where judges have no discretion and 2) the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, which, because of direct and indirect pressure, motivates judges to follow the guidelines. Pennsylvania judges sentence consistent with the guidelines and recommendations of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing in 90 percent of all sentences. The commission’s guidelines have become gospel.
Until we eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing and the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, this problem will continue to get worse.