Pennsylvania Arson Bill Caught Up in Mandatory Sentencing Debate

July 27, 2011

A proposal to stiffen sentences for arson in Pennsylvania has run afoul of a debate over the use of mandatory minimum sentences in the commonwealth.

State Sen. John Rafferty Jr., R-Chester, introduced the measure in March in response to the recent wave of arsons in the suburban Philadelphia city of Coatesville. The bill would establish a new category of aggravated arson for people who set fire to structures intending to cause injury or to buildings with people inside them. It would also establish mandatory minimum sentences of five and 10 years, depending on the severity of the blazes.

But the mandatory minimum provision has drawn the opposition of the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who argues that such rules have caused prison overcrowding, led to injustices and failed to deter crime.

“There’s always different factors that come into play … and injustices invariably happen when we tell a judge that he has to impose a particular sentence,” Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Currently, judges have discretion in deciding the length of prison terms for arson, although they are supposed to consult guidelines developed by a state sentencing commission and may be bound to impose specific sentences if the arson involves other crimes such as murder.

Greenleaf says mandatory minimum sentences cause “little fish” to receive overly harsh sentences. He argued that a teenager who set a brush fire as a prank could get a 10-year prison sentence if the measure were to be enacted in its current form.

Rafferty said the bill was carefully designed to be fair and argued that mandatory minimums play an important role in deterring crime. He and Greenleaf say they are talking about amending the measure.

Five people have been convicted or entered guilty pleas in the dozens of fires that plagued Coatesville beginning in February 2008, including a January 2009 blaze that destroyed 15 homes and caused an estimated $1.2 million damage a month after another fire claimed the life of an 83-year-old woman. The sentences ranged from 242 days to 23 months for one person who pleaded guilty to setting two fires, to 121/2 to 25 years each for two people convicted of setting a number of fires.

Rafferty said he was pleased with the sentences imposed, but the penalties could have been tougher with a mandatory minimum.

Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, also defended mandatory minimums, calling them an “important tool in ensuring justice.”

Ohio State University law professor Douglas A. Berman, who has written widely on mandatory minimums, said they are used by district attorneys to pressure defendants into plea bargains. He also said they imply that “we don’t trust judges to always impose a tough-enough sentence.”

In 2009, a typical state prison sentence for arson endangering another person was 45 to 100 months.

Berman said mandatory minimum sentences do not deter such crimes and Rafferty’s bill would be more effective if it included specific sentencing guidelines for judges instead.

Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, said such a guideline approach would allow “a little more finesse” than mandatory sentences.

Greenleaf conceded that opposing mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses such as drug use is more popular than opposing them for violent crimes. He said he is preparing his own legislation to allow judges to depart from mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders when “a substantial manifest injustice would occur” with such a sentence.

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