Over the course of the most recent two-year legislative session, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed some 280 new bills introducing new criminal offenses or toughening penalties for offenses already on the books. If that sounds like a lot of justice bills, that's because it is. 280 is almost a fifth of all the bills the legislature passed during this session.
The sweeping breadth of this criminal justice crackdown has led the Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU to issue a report labeling the General Assembly a “bipartisan criminal offense factory.” That report argues that not only do many of these laws go too far in penalizing Pennsylvania citizens but that they will have far-reaching negative effects on the state's entire criminal justice system.
The ACLU's report notes that when Pennsylvania's criminal code was originally enacted in 1972, it included only 282 offenses and sub-offenses. Since that time, however, that number has ballooned to over 1500. That creates “more opportunities for police and prosecutors to arrest, fine, and incarcerate people.”
Ironically, the legislature's actions come at a time when much of the rest of the country is talking about criminal reform. Time and again, research has demonstrated that blacks and other minorities are disproportionately affected by federal and state laws. Many legislatures have begun trying to correct these imbalances by abolishing unnecessary laws and scaling back penalties. Pennsylvania seemed to heed calls for reform last year when Governor Whitmer signed the so-called “Clean Slate” bills, making it easier for ex-felons to expunge their records. More offenses, though, and stricter penalties, threaten to undo that progress and add to the already $3 billion dollars the state spends on prisons, probation, and parole each year.
More troubling than the direct impact of these new laws are the less obvious effects they are likely to have. When criminal penalties become disproportionate to the crimes themselves, they destabilize the justice system. Prosecutors can use the threat of such penalties to pressure defendants—even innocent defendants—into signing plea agreements. That undermines the very nature of justice itself.
In addition, putting more people in jail ultimately places more stress on our society in general. As the ACLU's report goes on to point out, “in Pennsylvania, there are 879 collateral consequences for criminal convictions.” Convicted felons don't just face jail time. They face a lifetime of being denied housing, being turned down for jobs, and being prohibited from holding public office. Criminalizing more behaviors only means more citizens must deal with these unjust burdens.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento Can Help
Increasingly, the justice system is stacked against individuals. If you find yourself facing off against it, you need someone on your side. Attorney Joseph D. Lento understands your situation. More importantly, he knows how to fight to protect your rights.
For more information, contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-555-3686, or use our automated online form.