Judging justice: The mechanics of criminal sentencing

Policy Committee explores sentencing in Pennsylvania

HARRISBURG, Jan. 20 – In 2019, Pennsylvania had more young people serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole than any other place in the world. Sentencing laws in Pennsylvania disproportionately impact people of color, working class and poor people, and can have especially devastating consequences for youth.

The House Democratic Policy Committee's Subcommittee on Progressive Policies for Working People explored the current state of sentencing, the human consequences, and steps the state legislature could take to bring about change and needed services, while taking real steps to keep communities safe.

“The trauma of incarceration is deep and long-lasting. We can do better," said Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Phila., chair of the Subcommittee on Progressive Policies for Working People. “The effects are particularly traumatizing for children. Incarceration has a real human impact not just on the individual who is incarcerated, but on that person’s family, friends and community, and does not, in our current system, bring healing and support for survivors of the original act.”

Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Phila., chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, said, “We must ask: What is the goal of sentencing? Is our goal retribution? Is our goal rehabilitation? Is our goal safety?” Bullock, a lawyer who started her legal career at Community Legal Services emphasized, “We must reassess sentences so that they reflect our society at any given moment in time.”

“Sentencing might be the most important part of the criminal justice conversation,” said Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Delaware. “That’s why we brought together experts to discuss one of the core questions of any justice system: what sorts of outcomes does our justice system produce right now, and how can we do better?”

In closing, Rep. Rick Krajewski, D-Phila., added: “Sentencing today is a relic of a ‘tough on crime’ mentality of the past that no longer works, does not keep our communities safe, and destroys lives. Our sentencing, as it is, currently wastes resources, and we are committed to fixing these abhorrent laws, especially mandatory minimums.”

Those who testified during the hearing included Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing; Sara Jacobson, executive director of the Public Defender Association of Pennsylvania; Kevin Steele, Montgomery County district attorney and president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association; Maria Goellner, Pennsylvania State Policy Director, FAMM; Joanna Visser-Adjoian, co-founder and co-director, Youth Sentencing and Re-Entry Project; and Briannah Stoves, youth leader and impacted youth Care, Not Control Coalition. 

Compelling testimony came from Stoves, who described her experience being sentenced and incarcerated. She explained how she was removed from her home at the age of 14 despite never being in trouble before, spending the rest of her teen years in and out of facilities. She now works with the Care, Not Control Coalition, working to give a voice to youth impacted by incarceration. She and the Care, Not Control Coalition believe the justice system can support those who have committed wrongs. 

"People need to understand there is a real and tangible cost to sentencing in PA. We must understand the cost associated with members of our community being incarcerated. This is a pertinent conversation that must be happening. There must be action," said Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Phila., Democratic Caucus whip. He emphasized that in addition to the great human cost, the taxpayers of Pennsylvania also spend a tremendous amount of money incarcerating people in the current system.

More than a dozen representatives joined the hearing.   

Information about this and other House Democratic Policy Committee hearings can be found at www.pahouse.com/policycommittee