War on Drugs in Pennsylvania

  • Steve Jarmon,
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As the Superbowl approaches and the backgrounds of some of the participants are revealed, most people were shocked to learn that Bronco receiver Demaryius Thomas has a grandmother who is serving a life sentence in prison for drug distribution. What was shocking was not that his grandmother was in prison, but the fact that she was serving a life sentence for a non violent crime.

Unfortunately this type of situation is not an isolated event and occurs in every state in the country, including Pennsylvania. Drug crimes in Pennsylvania are treated more severely than some crimes of violence. For instance, a person with no prior record who burglarizes someone’s home or assaults someone and seriously injures them will likely get less time in jail than someone who is growing marijuana in their home. Most people would agree that the person who is breaking into someone’s house or assaulting someone is committing the more egregious crime, but our sentencing laws don’t reflect society’s views.

Prescription Fraud has quickly become one of the most oppressive sentences that a person can receive. Many of the people who are committing these crimes become addicted to Vicodin or Oxycontin through no fault of their own as they are trying to deal with pain from a serious injury. The addiction caused them to take desperate measures in order to cope with the pain, including writing fake prescriptions in order to continue to get the drugs after their doctors stop prescribing them. The likely sentence in Pennsylvania for someone with no prior record who obtains at least 100 pills through this type of fraud is a minimum of 2 years in the state prison. To compare, someone with no prior record who commits the violent crime of robbery will likely serve a sentence that is less than a year in the county prison.

Pennsylvania Drug sentences can also become oppressive when law enforcement allow a suspect to commit multiple drug sales or deliveries before they make an arrest. Law enforcement in Pennsylvania purposely allow their target to continue to operate so that when they finally make an arrest the person can be sentenced on each and every sale to a separate and consecutive jail sentence. For drug delivery crimes, the penalty increases if a person has a prior offense for the same crime. Not a prior conviction, but a prior offense. So if the police watch a suspect sell drugs on three different days before they make their arrest, that person if convicted would be looking at increased penalties on the 2nd and 3rd sale because the first sale would be considered a prior offense even though there was only one arrest made.

There is no other crime that I can think of where law enforcement watch the crime happen but intentionally choose not to make an arrest. Imagine the police watching a violent home invasion occur or a sexual assault and declining to make an arrest so that the person could commit one or two more home invasions or assaults before making the arrest. The public would be outraged. Of course, the counter argument here would be “Well of course the public would be outraged but the police would never let that happen because the person committing that crime is dangerous and needs to be removed from the streets.” But that argument would expose the irony inherent in the way we sentence drug offenders compared to other offenses. The urgency in which society wants to apprehend someone is usually reflected in the severity of the sentence someone receives for that crime. There is no urgency from society to take a drug offenders off the streets even when those crimes are witnessed by the police but yet some of the most lengthy sentences handed out in Pennsylvania are for drug offenders.

It’s time to take a look at the sentences being imposed on drug offenders in Pennsylvania. Does it seem fair that people are serving years and decades in prison for non violent crimes when rape offenders and and other violent offenders are back on the streets in less time?

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