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Program Can Reduce Mandatory Sentences in Pennsylvania Drug Cases

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Like many states, Pennsylvania faces prison overcrowding issues, and the problem is being dealt with in two ways: 1) the construction of additional prisons; and 2) the early release of some non-violent offenders. The Pennsylvania legislature passed the Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive Act,  commonly referred to as RRRI, to allow for the early release of people sentenced to state prisons. Not every state inmate is eligible to participate in the RRRI early-release program. The judge is required to determine RRRI eligibility at the time of sentencing.

RRRI and Drug Mandatory Sentences

Felony drug offenses sometimes involve application of mandatory minimum sentences. For example, if a person delivers or grows marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school, including a university like Lock Haven, Penn State University Park, or Penn State Altoona, the person faces a felony charge of Manufacturing Marijuana and a 2-year mandatory minimum sentence because the violation occurred within a "drug-free school zone."

In the case of Commonwealth v. Hansley, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had to consider whether the RRRI program applied to people who were sentenced under mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In this particular case, the man had been convicted or pleaded guilty to a felony drug delivery charge and had been sentenced to a mandatory minimum under the "drug trafficking" law. "Drug trafficking" is a series of mandatory sentences that are applied to felony drug charges involving larger quantities of drugs. Prosecuting attorneys often invoke mandatory sentences under what is the "drug trafficking" statute. Both the "school zone" and "drug trafficking" mandatory minimum sentencing laws state that "[t]here shall be no authority for a court to impose...a lesser sentence."

Argument of Pennsylvania Drug Defense Lawyer

The Pennsylvania defense attorney who represented the man argued that because the RRRI law had been passed after the mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug cases, the legislature intended RRRI to apply to such drug delivery mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The drug nbsp;defense attorney also analogized RRRI to the "boot camp" program and noted that the "boot camp" program is used to reduce the actual time spent in prison in cases in which the "school zone" mandatory minimum sentence is imposed. For example, I have represented Penn State students that were sentenced to the 2 year minimum for selling drug within a school zone, and those persons were released after completing the 6 month boot camp program despite the 2 year minimum sentence.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the arguments of the defense lawyer and held that RRRI did apply to drug delivery charges and drug related mandatory minimum sentences. A critical part of the Court's opinion noted that the RRRI law did expressly exclude some drug defendants from being eligible to receive a RRRI sentence. Since the legislature excluded some people from participating, the legislature failure to exclude people in the defendant's situation evidenced an intent to instead include such people to participate in RRRI.

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