According to a recent Huffington Post article, 77% of Americans are in favor of putting an end to mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders. Many of the non-violent offenders are in prison based upon severe sentences that are imposed on drug-related crimes. For example, in Pennsylvania, one of the most ridiculous mandatory minimum sentences, commonly called the "drug-free school zone", imposes a two-year minimum sentence on a person that is convicted of delivery, possessing with intent to deliver, or manufacturing a drug within 1,000 feet of the real property of a school or 250 feet within the real property of a recreational facility. Many people would support such a law as they want to keep drug dealers and that type of activity away from children, and as a parent, I would probably support such a law. However, the definition of "school" includes colleges and universities, so a Penn State or Lock Haven student that sells a small amount of marijuana to a friend or gives him an Adderall pill faces a two-year mandatory minimum sentence. If the school zone mandatory sentence did not apply, a person charged with distributing less than one pound of marijuana who did not have a prior criminal record would generally face a probationary sentence up to one month in jail. It does not make sense that a person that sells marijuana 1,001 feet from a school can avoid jail time but a person selling on campus gets a two-year sentence in a state correctional facility. While such students should be punished for illegal activity, the punishment should fit the crime.
Judges and Not Prosecutors Should Determines Sentences
The main problem that I have with mandatory sentencing laws is that it gives the prosecutors too much power in the criminal system. In a normal situation, a person's sentence is determined by the judge and not the prosecutor. The judge is supposed to be a neutral party in the process that considers all relevant factors and then imposes an appropriate sentence. When mandatory minimum sentences are applicable, whether or not to invoke those sentences is up to the prosecutor and not the judge. Therefore, in such cases, the prosecutors are taking power from the judges, and the prosecutors are not a neutral party.
Use of School Zone Sentencing Law in Centre County
I am sure that many people will discount my opinion because I am State College criminal defense attorney that represents many Penn State and Lock Haven students charged with marijuana and other drug-related offenses. I admit that I am biased. However, the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission, a group of highly trained and intelligent individuals that are paid with your Pennsylvania tax dollars, recommended that the legislature repeal the drug-free school zone law years ago. You can read the Sentencing Commission report here. Ironically, the current Centre County District Attorney, Stacy Parks Miller, opposed using school zone mandatory sentences to incarcerate college kids prior to being elected. According to an online article from 2009, Parks Miller stated that "mandatory minimum sentences might sound appealing to a legislator trying to please constituents, the repercussions of the power shift from judge to prosecutor jeopardize any attempt at fair and uniform sentencing." Parks Miller also said that the using the school zone law "is inappropriate for college students who would otherwise be facing a more fitting punishment." Sadly, since taking office, Parks Miller did not abide by her prior statements because her office uses drug-related mandatory sentences, including the school zone, to set first time, non-violent offenders to state prison.
Hopefully the Pennsylvania legislature will listen to the recommendation of the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission and repeal the drug-free school zone mandatory minimum sentencing law. The power to determine the appropriate sentence should reside with a judge and not with a prosecutor, and college students should not be facing lengthy prison sentences for selling a small amount of marijuana to a friend near a college campus.