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Pennsylvania Bill Imposing Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Some Fentanyl Overdose Death Passes Senate [FEATURE]

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #1196)
Consequences of Prohibition
Drug War Issues
Politics & Advocacy

The state Senate on Monday approved Senate Bill 235 also known as "Tyler's Law" after an 18-year-old who died of a fentanyl overdose, which would impose a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for some people convicted of providing illicit drugs that resulted in a fatal overdose. Mandatory minimums would apply if the person had two or more prior convictions related to drug delivery and if he received "anything of value" for providing the drugs.

The measure was sponsored by Sen. Doug Mastriano (R), a far-right election denier and conspiracy theorist whose views were so extreme he won the Republican nomination for governor in 2022 only to be blown out in the general election, losing by 15 points and handing the office to Democrat Josh Shapiro.

The bill as originally filed was more draconian that what eventually passed the Senate. As filed by Mastriano, the bill would have imposed the mandatory minimums -- 25 years in the original, not 10 -- if the person had two or more priors or he received "something of value," which would have effectively made a bill ostensibly aimed at preventing fatal drug overdoses into one that could see mandatory minimums for any drug sale resulting in a fatality, with or without prior offenses.

The original bill also had no provision exempting people who were sharing drugs from the mandatory minimums. But the Senate approved an amendment by Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D) that addressed both issues. It changed that or to an and, removing the possibility of people other than those twice-convicted of drug sales being hit with mandatory minimums, and it added explicit language exempting situations where "the person and the decedent intended to use the controlled substance or counterfeit controlled substance together or the person used the controlled substance or counterfeit controlled substance with the decedent."

Still, the bill would introduce new mandatory minimum sentences, and that is drawing the ire of groups such as the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Families Against Mandatory Minimums. As the bill awaits consideration in the Democratic-controlled House, the groups are raising the alarm.

"SB 235 would almost certainly incarcerate people with substance use disorders," said the ACLU of Pennsylvania as it came out against the measure. "Instead of reducing the instances of drug-related deaths, SB 235 has the real potential of punishing people for their substance use disorder. Mandatory minimum sentences fail to keep Pennsylvanians safe, while driving up prison populations and costs for taxpayers. Despite their best intentions, legislators should resist resorting to demonstrably failed policies of the past."

"It is 2023, yet some lawmakers continue to cling to the same failed approach to the War on Drugs from 1983," said Celeste Trusty, FAMM Pennsylvania State Policy Director. "We have decades of research proving mandatory minimums to be ineffective and wasteful policy. They have been a primary driver of Pennsylvania's unsustainable prison population which is now the second largest in the northeast. They perpetuate and exacerbate overwhelming racial disparities within our criminal justice system."

"We tried mandatory minimums before," Trusty continued. "They failed. The underlying case here is a tragedy, but this mandatory minimum bill won't prevent overdoses or make us safer or healthier. It won't stop people from using drugs or help people struggling with substance use. In fact, it will make us less safe by forcing judges to ignore effective alternatives and spend millions sending people to prison even if they don't need to be there. I am hopeful the House will focus on crafting legislative responses that actually lead to positive outcomes for our communities."

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

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