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Pennsylvania Law Has Five Times More Criminal Offenses Today than in the 1970s

A recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania opened the state up to some criticism of its criminal justice system. According to the report, the state’s criminal code had 282 offenses in 1972, but that number rose to 636 by 2010 and more than 1,500 in 2019, meaning there are now five times more crimes under state law than there were approximately 50 years ago.

Nyssa Taylor, the ACLU’s criminal justice policy counsel, says that sentences have grown harsher along with the increasing number of potential crimes for which a person can be convicted. This has resulted in a massive growth of the state prison population, from 5,000 prisoners in 1972 to more than 48,000 today.

Unnecessary addition of crimes?

In 2009, there were an average of 22 crimes per year being added to the Pennsylvania Crimes Code and an additional 41 added outside the crimes code. That number has only accelerated since then.

The ACLU report argues many of the offenses being added are already covered by existing laws. For example, in the most recent legislative session, proposed offenses included harming a service dog, evading arrest on foot, sale of novelty lighters, threats of violence against a school and leaving a child under 13 in a car unsupervised. According to the ACLU, there were already numerous areas in which these offenses were covered.

Taylor states that by adding overlapping charges (and more charges in general) to the state code, the legislature removes power from judges and gives more of it to police and prosecutors. It allows prosecutors and lawmakers to pile charges on to suspects to coerce a guilty plea out of them. It is the ACLU’s position that lawmakers should find ways to streamline the criminal code and remove overlapping penalties.

For more information about criminal justice reform in Pennsylvania, contact experienced criminal defense lawyer David R. Eshelman.


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