PA House of Representatives Hopefuls Share Bold Vision for Criminal Justice Reform in Allegheny County and Across Pennsylvania

By Ian Pajer-Rogers, Communications Strategist, Campaign for Smart Justice, ACLU of Pennsylvania

At the Forum For A Just PA in Pittsburgh this week, five candidates for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives fielded questions from community groups, people currently incarcerated in Allegheny County, and voters about their views on criminal justice reform and mass incarceration.

Over the course of the two-hour discussion, which was streamed live on the ACLU-PA Facebook page, it was apparent that candidates in attendance were well attuned to how they might work to bring about meaningful change in Allegheny County and across Pennsylvania.

Allegheny County is the second-largest contributor to the state prison system after Philadelphia, and it holds an average of 2,300 people in its county jail on any given day — many of whom are there simply because they can’t afford cash bail. Almost 50 percent of those people are Black, despite accounting for only 13 percent of the county’s residents.

Pastor Michael Anthony Day moderated the forum and pushed the candidates to get specific on what steps they would take to reform the criminal justice system. A major theme among the forum attendees was putting an end to cash bail in Allegheny County and statewide.

Representative Jake Wheatley of the 19th District, the only incumbent in attendance, noted his 100% percent voting record score from the ACLU Pennsylvania in 2016 and reminded the audience that the broken cash bail system “starts with who we have in the DA’s office. What they ask for within the system controls a lot of what happens with the defendants.”

Summer Lee, a candidate for the 34th District, reminded the room of the racist and draconian roots of cash bail: “When we look at the criminal justice system, cash bail is just another old relic that needs to go … The harsh reality here is that these issues all impact disproportionately people of color and poor communities.”

“Even a few days in jail can ruin somebody’s life,” said Mike Devine, candidate for the 20th District, focusing on the all-too-common outcome of the cash bail system. “A few days. You lose your job. Your license gets suspended. Your family and the whole thing falls apart in a matter of a few weeks. It’s heartless.”

Sara Innamorato, candidate for the 21st District, focused on the profit-motives baked into the cash bail system: “We are running modern day debtor prisons here in the state of Pennsylvania … When you tie our prison systems to creating profit, you’re going to only encourage more mass incarceration.”

“The system isn’t broken. The system works exactly how it was designed,” said Aerion Abney, a challenger to Rep. Wheatley. Jail is “supposed to be reformatory. But the people in jail feel like they’re in purgatory. We have to figure out how we can go back to reforming people back into civil society.”

By the end of the forum, it was apparent that the candidates who attended have a clear understanding of the challenges inherent to reducing incarceration rates and ending racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

We hope that all candidates for public office across Pennsylvania will follow suit and clarify where they stand on smart criminal justice reform.

The primary is May 15.

The forum was co-hosted by Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration – West, ACLU PA, First Unitarian Church, UU-PLAN, Alliance for Police Accountability, Elsinore Bennu Think Tank for Restorative Justice, P.O.O.R.L.A.W., Human Rights Coalition – Fed Up Chapter, Abolitionist Law Center, Let’s Get Free – Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee.

Waiting While Black in Philadelphia Can Get You Arrested

What happened in a Philadelphia Starbucks is another example of the indignities Black people face every day.

By Reggie Shuford, executive director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

(Image Via Twitter)

Late last week, two Black men in Philadelphia were doing what people do every day in this city — they waited in a coffee shop to meet an associate. While they were engaged in this mundane activity, they were removed from the Starbucks cafe at 18th and Spruce Streets in handcuffs by Philadelphia police officers.

This is another example of the kind of daily indignities that African-Americans face every day in Philadelphia and around the country. We can’t even wait in a coffee shop for a friend without the possibility that someone will call the police. Two days after the news broke of the incident, I’m angrier now than I was when I first heard about it.

The neighborhood where this incident occurred is known as Rittenhouse Square. For those not familiar with Philadelphia, it’s a tony neighborhood of beautiful townhouses and high-end apartment buildings.

It’s also the neighborhood with the highest rates of racial disparities in stops and frisks by police in all of Philadelphia. In 2010, the ACLU of Pennsylvania sued the city because the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of stop-and-frisk was discriminatory. Our data showed that African-Americans were far more likely to be stopped and frisked than their white counterparts. Making matters worse, those stops were often without any justifiable cause.

A year later, the city agreed to a consent decree to settle the case. That agreement requires the city to collect data on the PPD’s use of stop-and-frisk — including the demographic information of people who are stopped and the reasons why they were stopped — as well as to train officers to eliminate bias-based policing.

The police service area where the Starbucks is located has a Black population of just 3 percent. But 67 percent of the stops that occurred there in the first half of 2017 were of African-Americans. The two other police service areas in this district — known as District 9 — show similar lopsided disparities. In one of the bordering police service areas, a whopping 84 percent of pedestrians stopped were African-Americans in a neighborhood with a Black population of 16 percent.

Seven years after the city agreed to do better, we still see consistent racial disparities in stops and frisks. Yet, in a video statement in response to the incident, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross had the nerve to say that his officers “did absolutely nothing wrong.”

His statement, the data the city has collected on stops, and this incident all lead me to wonder if Ross and his leaders in this district and this police service area, Capt. Danielle Vales and Lt. Jeffrey Rabinovitch, are serious about ending racial profiling in this neighborhood and throughout the city.

There was no need for a Starbucks employee to call 911 because two men were waiting for an associate in their store. And even after the police were called, the police did not have to end the situation by arresting these men. If Commissioner Ross is right that these officers followed policy, then the policy needs to change. Starbucks may be able to decide who sits in its store, but only the police could decide to arrest these men.

Racial bias and discrimination are so steeped in American culture that those of us who experience it on a regular basis have learned to live as second-class citizens in the country of our birth. Many folks have expressed pride or relief because the two men remained calm. I get that. I am glad, too. We have seen far too many incidents that have quickly spiraled out of control.

But there is an ugly side to that as well. Black people, men in particular, are not allowed the full range of emotional expression in public spaces. Even when an emotion other than being calm is warranted, we have been taught and have learned to police our emotions. No matter how badly we are being treated or how much our dignity is being assailed, we have to be the ones maintaining control and being responsible for de-escalating these situations.

We are not allowed to be angry. Or loud. Or boisterous. Or too happy or too celebratory. In other words, we’re not allowed to be human. We police ourselves because we know that others are already policing us. That, too, takes a toll.

As this story has gathered attention over the last three days, many people are doing back flips to justify what happened here. It is well past time to quit making excuses for racist behavior. Enough with the rationalizations and alternative theories. Believe us. We are credible messengers of our own truths and lived experiences. We shouldn’t have to rely on a white person or a video to validate us.

Open Letter in defense of “March for our Lives” student walkouts

Dear Pennsylvania school administrators, solicitors, board members, and educators,

As you are already aware, students nationwide have decided to respond to the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, by engaging in organized demonstrations. Their hope is to promote awareness of gun violence, which has devastated schools and communities across the country, and spark meaningful reform to address this issue. We at the ACLU of Pennsylvania ask that you support them in this endeavor, and refrain from disciplining any students who engage in a peaceful walkout.

Students striving to change their communities and their country through non-violent means should be held up as models of civic engagement, regardless of the issue or the politics involved. School administrators and educators can either punish these civically minded students for violating school rules or seize this opportunity to nurture their efforts to participate in civic life and to effect positive change around them.

If you choose to punish them, you should be aware that, when engaging in political speech, students enjoy constitutional protections both in and out of school.

Outside of school, as you know, students enjoy the same rights to protest as others. During school hours, students have protection for political speech under our state and federal constitutions. Practically, this means:

  • Students cannot be punished for expressing their beliefs unless it substantially and materially disrupts school functioning or the substance is lewd or profane.
  • Students cannot be disciplined for wearing clothes or accessories that express political or issue-oriented viewpoints just because some may disagree with that view.

As students plan walkouts to press for changes in policy, please bear firmly in mind:

  • It is unconstitutional to discipline students more harshly for politically motivated conduct than for similar, non-political behavior.
  • The ACLU of Pennsylvania may intervene if a student who leaves school as an act of political protest faces more severe punishmentthan a classmate would for skipping class for some other reason.

At the ACLU of Pennsylvania, we are continually impressed and inspired by the commonwealth’s engaged young people who stand up for their own rights and the rights of others. Whether or not you agree with their cause, we hope you will join us in encouraging students to use their growing voices to participate in our democracy, rather than becoming another hurdle they have to overcome in their fight to be heard.

Sincerely,

Reggie Shuford
Executive Director

Witold Walczak
Legal Director

Meet Akudo Ejelonu — Frankel-Adair Scholar 2017–18

Akudo Ejelonu at the ACLU of Pennsylvania offices on March 8, 2018 (credit: Ben Bowens)

How did you hear about the Frankel-Adair Scholarship?

Through the LGBT Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

What, if any, was your connection to the ACLU prior to applying for the scholarship?

I have always been familiar with the mission and work of ACLU since high school.

What were the most important events or influences that brought you to where you are today?

My family migrating to the United States from Nigeria seeking better opportunities, employment, and access to education. I grew up in inner-city Boston and had to fight against xenophobia, racial disparity, bullying, and socioeconomic inequality and even discrimination from other people of color. My parents worked two full time jobs and being the second born out of seven children, I was responsible for caring for my younger siblings and maintaining the household. After I came home from school, I would assist my siblings with their homework, make dinner and get them ready for school for the next day. I had to grow up really fast but know that I was destined to do extraordinary things with my life (big or small). These experiences were just part of the chapter in my life and not the conclusion.

What do you see as the critical issues facing the LGBT community at this time?

Everything! But if I had to pick one, I would say that we need to shed more light on the treatment and lack of support for “undocumented” LGBT people, especially people of color. It is imperative that undocumented individuals be given the chance to step out of the shadows and away from the fears of deportation and continue the work they do every day in this nation to support themselves and their family. How they are treated by employers, family, romantic partners, friends, colleagues, classmates, and neighbors matter. How are they treated by the legal system, healthcare system, law enforcement, social services and educational institutions all matters. Their physical, emotional and spiritual safety matter. Any comprehensive, successful immigration policy needs to expand opportunity for all rather than selectively applying our nation’s values.

Akudo and ACLUPA Executive Director, Reggie Shuford. (credit: Ben Bowens)

Do you envision your own professional career having an impact on concerns of the LGBT community?

Yes, I do. I am still building my professional aspirations and hope that wherever life takes me, it will allow me to have a direct and/or indirect impact on the community. I feel indebted to Bayard Rustin and other people who history tried to erase because of homophobia. I want the work that I do to matter and to help communities grow and prosper.

What other social issues motivate you?

Global health, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), homelessness, poverty, environmentally induced migration of IDPs (internally displaced persons), and refugee rights.

What effect do you think being a recipient of the Frankel-Adair Scholarship will have on you?

This is the first time I am being recognized within the community-at-large. It is a different feeling. It bears a level of responsibility and gratitude. I stand on the shoulders of giants before me and hope that I can bear that same weight for those in my present and future. This is more than just an award, it is an affirmation, rite of passage and homecoming.

— — — –

The Frankel-Adair scholarship provides $1,500 in support of post-secondary education to an LGBT student residing in the Greater Philadelphia area.  Learn more about the Frankel-Adair Scholarship here!

#RethinkDiscipline: Students of color with disabilities can’t learn if they’re not in school

Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate at ACLU-PA, offered comment on the harsh discipline of students of color with disabilities in public schools today before the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Here is his statement.

Harold Jordan of ACLU-PA with Catherine E. Lhamon, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, at today’s briefing on school discipline in Washington, D.C.

Thank you for this opportunity to address the Commission on a matter of great importance to students and families in Pennsylvania, the harsh discipline of students of color with disabilities in our public schools.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has reviewed discipline and law enforcement data, addressed relevant policy issues, and participated in discussions with school communities and education decision-makers. I’ve had the privilege of serving on a committee of Pennsylvania’s Developmental Disabilities Council, a state agency which has provided grants to programs that address the school-to-prison pipeline’s impact on students with disabilities.

Pennsylvania’s patterns of punishment of students of color with disabilities parallels national trends:

  • Black students with disabilities receive out of school suspensions at the highest rates of any group of students. Some 22 percent of Black students with disabilities were suspended at least once. In fact, the profile of the PA student who is most likely to be suspended is a Black male student with a disability. Black and Latino students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended multiple times than any other group.
  • Roughly a dozen districts suspend between 40 percent and 75 percent of Black students with disabilities.
  • Similar patterns of punishment are reflected in contact with law enforcement and arrest.
  • Overidentification, misidentification and under-identification of students of color remains a significant problem.
  • Also problematic is the failure of schools to conduct manifestation reviews and to provide appropriate individualized education supports.

The result is the excessive punishment of students of color, especially those who have disabilities.

Parents and guardians have great difficulty exercising their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act. It is challenging for them to ensure that their children are treated fairly and receive constructive supports and services.

We ask the commission to:

1) Urge the U.S. Department of Education to implement the “Equity in IDEA” rule (significant disproportionality) fully and on schedule.

2) Urge local education agencies to establish protocols that address interactions between law enforcement and students with disabilities. These should:

  • Limit contact between police and students with disabilities. No elementary school student should be handed over to law enforcement.
  • Require any law enforcement working in schools to get extensive training on how to de-escalate conflicts and how to work with youth, and youth with disabilities.
  • Protect the privacy rights of students with disabilities.
  • Require training for school staff on how to better work with students of color with disabilities and de-escalate conflicts, instead of turning to law enforcement to force compliance.

3) Urge state and local education agencies to do more rigorous monitoring of the use restraint and seclusion practices, and to make that information available to the public.

Tell Politicians to Stay out of Our Health Care

Pennsylvania lawmakers are poised to vote on a bill restricting essential transgender health services next week. Please take a few minutes to make a call and ask how your state representative plans to vote on House Bill 1933.

Enter YOUR phone number, including area code:

Once you’re connected, tell your state representative:

I am calling about House Bill 1933, which would prevent transgender people insured through Medicaid and CHIP from getting the healthcare they need. I believe that no matter what kind of insurance a transgender person has, they should be able to access the medical care that they and their doctors agree is necessary for their health and well-being. Can you tell me how my representative plans to vote on this bill?


Once you’ve made the call, please take a minute to report back to us about how your representative plans to vote on this bill! You can just fill out this brief form about your call.


Background on HB 1933

Just a few weeks ago, Pennsylvania lawmakers were threatening to hold hostage CHIP, a program that insures nearly 200,000 children, as part of an effort to restrict insurance coverage for transition-related healthcare. Fortunately, the CHIP bill has been stripped of the earlier anti-trans amendment. But lawmakers haven’t given up their attack on healthcare for transgender Pennsylvanians.

A new bill, House Bill 1933, would prohibit CHIP and Medicaid from covering a range of transition-related services for the nearly three million Pennsylvanians, children and adults, who are insured through these programs. It would exclude from coverage everything from counseling to hormones to surgical procedures – even when an individual’s doctor determines this is medically necessary care.

The House plans to vote on HB 1933 the week of December 4th. Your state representative needs to hear from you today!

Help protect healthcare access for transgender Pennsylvanians like Naiymah and Jen’s son, Carter, whose story you can hear below. Call your state representative today.

Discrimination in CHIP Renewal is Hurtful to Transgender Youth. Shame on Our State Senators.

My name is Carrie Santoro, and I want to tell you about my son Finn.

Finn loves hiking and exploring nature.

His favorite holiday is Valentine’s Day, and he hates to see people in pain.

He is Student Council President, loves to read, and bemoans homework.

He has a little sister who would swear that he hung the moon and stars just for her.

Loving and nurturing other people is woven into the fabric of who he is. He is a ray of sunshine that makes our corner of the world a brighter place.

He is also transgender.

When Finn told us he was a boy at the end of the third grade, we supported him during his transition to live openly as male. The difference we saw in him was unbelievable. He did better in school, he was happier at home, he talked about his future, and he absolutely glowed, as the way he saw himself was finally reconciled with who everyone else saw on the outside.

Two years ago, we had our first appointment with a pediatric endocrinologist. The medical options available — which, make no mistake, can be life saving for trans youth — were largely not covered by insurance and incredibly cost prohibitive.

Luckily, federal legal protections expanded and eventually trickled down to states, and enough doctors, patients, and parents of patients successfully (and painfully) appealed insurance company denials of these services to set precedent that makes denials in Pennsylvania rare.

The state Senate’s recent passage of House Bill 1388, which renews the Children’s Health Insurance Program with a provision that discriminates against trans youth, threatens that progress.

Senator Don White, the author of the trans discrimination provision, chose to hold hostage 176,000 children insured through CHIP, fabricating a choice between them and care for my son, in a publicity stunt meant to turn people against each other for his own political gain.

For reasons lost on most, Senator White chose to politicize Finn’s existence to sow discord among those of us who have more in common than not, to demonize my son, and to turn other parents and, subsequently, their children against him.

As for the other 33 Republicans, including my state senator, Patrick Browne, and three Democrats who voted to advance a bill that says my son is less human and says appealing to the very worst of human nature for cheap political points is worth sacrificing him on the altar of your own ambition, shame on you.

Shame on you for stoking fear and prejudice and deciding to vote based on political expediency rather than public service or even facts.

Shame on you for being more concerned about re-election and intra-party political promotion than advocating for what is right and just.

Considering Pennsylvania legislators are the second highest paid in the country — topped only by California — I understand you have a lot to lose. But we have more.

You could have stood on solid moral ground and told your colleagues and constituents that the American College of Physicians, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychological Association are just a few of the many organizations that agree gender-transition services are medically necessary for children like my son.

You could have eased their economic concerns by sharing studies like the 2015 analysis by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that show this care is cost-effective for insurance companies, as transgender people make up a small segment of the population and gender-affirming services actually reduce patients’ future health expenses.

You could have chosen to use your station as a source for change in public understanding of the trans community. You could have publicly called this amendment what it is — hateful, unnecessary, and absurd — and exposed the political motivations behind it. Instead, you continue to fail us. All of us.

Who will be Harrisburg’s next target for exclusions? Will they follow the national model of going after kids with asthma? Cancer? Perhaps cystic fibrosis? Where will they draw the line? The precedent set by this bill will not only affect transgender children nor will it only affect children insured by CHIP.

Bills like HB 1388 that include hateful and exclusionary provisions are not based in economics or medical science nor are they for the greater good. They are meant to call into question the humanity of children like my son and perpetuate the myth that they are less deserving of needed health care.

Our children deserve better. My son deserves better.

Carrie Santoro writes from Lehigh County.

Meek Mill’s sentence reveals problems with Pennsylvania’s extreme use of court supervision

By Reggie Shuford, Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Hip-hop artist Meek Mill was named one of the 100 most influential Philadelphians by Philadelphia Magazine. However, rather than his music, his recent prison sentence is what has garnered the spotlight, helping to focus attention on the problems of our criminal justice system, specifically the issue of court supervision in Pennsylvania and its impact on mass incarceration.

Rapper Meek Mill arrives at the criminal justice center in Philadelphia, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This past week, on November 6, Judge Genece E. Brinkley sentenced Mill, 30, to two to four years in state prison for a probation violation. Over ten years ago, an 18-year-old Mill was arrested for drug and gun possession. In 2009, Judge Brinkley sentenced Mill — who was then known by his given name Robert Rahmeek Williams — to 11 ½ to 23 months in prison, followed by eight years of probation. Since that time, the judge has overseen his case.

Many people are outraged over the injustice of Mill’s lengthy sentence, and they should be. Criminal justice advocate Jay-Z, whose Roc Nation recording company signed the Philadelphia native, took to Facebook and called the sentence “unjust and heavy handed,” pledging to “always stand by and support Meek Mill, both as he attempts to right this wrongful sentence and then in returning to his musical career.” Said CNN contributor Van Jones, “It is absolutely outrageous. It is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never heard of a case where a brother stands before a judge; the prosecutor says, do not put this brother in jail; the probation office says do not put this brother in jail; And, for some reason, the judge says I’m going to put him in jail any way.”

And a petition on Change.org in support of Mill is closing in on 200,000 signatures.

The public outcry over this case underscores how people are sent to prison over technical violations versus direct violations. A probationer incurs a direct violation if he or she is convicted of a new crime while on probation. A person who has failed to comply with the terms of their probation — but who has not committed a new crime — receives a technical violation. Pennsylvania law permits a judge to incarcerate a defendant only if he or she already committed, or is likely to commit, a new crime. Even more problematic, that same statute allows a judge to impose prison time if “such a sentence is essential to vindicate the authority of the court” — which means the law allows a court to incarcerate someone merely if the judge feels disrespected.

What did Mill do to cause the judge to send him to prison? This past year, he was arrested for a fight in the St. Louis airport — charges were dropped — and took a dismissal deal for reckless driving and “popping a wheelie” on his dirt bike.

Meanwhile, 4.65 million adults in the U.S. are on probation or parole, or 1 in 53 adults. Pennsylvania — which has the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast — has the fourth highest number of people under government supervision, long after they committed their crimes, with 280,000 people as of 2015, and one-third of all prison beds in Pennsylvania are occupied by people who violated the terms of their probation or parole. This comes at great expense to Pennsylvania’s taxpayers, diverting precious resources from education and social services.

Meek Mill has become the face of probation and parole and the excesses of a system that ensnares so many without celebrity status. When the law allows judges to incarcerate people under their supervision solely because of a technical violation — when they committed no new crime and pose no threat whatsoever — we have a problem.

My transgender son is trying to find his way. Politicians aren’t helping.

By Ellen*

I’ll never forget when my son, Jacob, told me that he is transgender. He was 13 years old at the time, and we were out for dinner. As he ate his lobster, he looked at me and said, “Mom, I’m in the wrong shell,” as tears welled in his eyes.

Since his decision to live openly as male, I have done everything that I can to support his healthcare needs, both physical and emotional. We found a pediatrician who has a well-deserved reputation for being supportive of transgender kids, and she has been wonderful. The Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia has also been an irreplaceable resource. He is now 15 and has the healthcare support that he needs.

His social isolation, though, has been a greater struggle. When Jacob came out, he was attending a brick-and-mortar charter school. Being an adolescent is hard enough, but being a transgender teenager is incredibly difficult. We all know that teens can be abominable to one another, and his classmates did not understand Jacob’s experience and gave no indication of interest in understanding what it’s like to be transgender. He had one friend who outed him to others who did not know that he’s trans, which compounded his social anxiety. He now attends a cyber charter school. He has become introverted, uncomfortable with other kids, and friendship with others his age is very difficult for him.

Philadelphia Trans March, October 7, 2017 (photos: Rick Urbanowski Photography)

I celebrate and am grateful for the many trans kids who are able to live their lives openly with support from their families and their friends. I want my son to live the fullest life possible as the person he is, and I hope we’re moving toward a day when transgender people in America are treated with the same respect and dignity as everyone else.

Politicians compound the challenges for transgender youth when they actively pursue discriminatory policies against the trans community. When elected officials use transgender people as a wedge to score cheap political points, it feeds a negative narrative about the lives of trans people, and that narrative is felt acutely by young people.

The Pennsylvania Senate recently engaged in this very kind of underhanded behavior when it passed a bill to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program with a provision that prohibits CHIP coverage of transition-related surgical procedures. This isn’t a benign policy discussion about how expansive CHIP should be. This is an effort to diminish the humanity of trans youth. If it becomes law, this bill would deny coverage of medically necessary and sometimes life-saving medical care for transgender young people. It feels like nothing less than dehumanization of my son and kids like him.

Jacob and I are lucky that we are able to access private health insurance. Unlike our state senators, though, I have a basic level of empathy, and I don’t need the experience of using CHIP to be able to relate to any parent of a transgender child who just wants the best healthcare coverage possible for their kid.

The teenage years are fraught with challenges. And transgender teens face unique hurdles that cisgender kids do not. They don’t need politicians making things worse.

*Ellen and her son live in Lehigh County. She writes using pseudonyms for both herself and her son to protect their privacy.

Is it time to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania?

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Is it time to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania? Photo via herb.co.

Citations and charges can ruin lives. It can be traffic tickets with fines too high to afford, disorderly conduct charges, other non-violent offenses, or even violent offenses that reflect an earlier time in someone’s life before they had a chance to grow up and reform. Any entrance into the criminal justice system can be an automatic ticket to second-class citizenship — a way for employers to discriminate, for judges to make unfair sentencing decisions, and for peers to judge.

As part of ACLU-PA’s efforts to reduce the commonwealth’s incarceration rate, it’s our goal to lessen the number of people ensnared into the criminal justice system. We consider Pennsylvania’s marijuana laws to be low-hanging fruit in that regard.

While a recent Franklin & Marshall poll found that 59 percent of Pennsylvania residents believe marijuana should be legal, retrograde laws nonetheless trap thousands of people in the criminal justice system for pot-related offenses every year. And those numbers have risen in recent years.

Over the last several months, we’ve worked with marijuana advocates and data specialists to quantify Pennsylvania’s cannabis crackdown. And on Monday, October 16, we plan to reveal what we’ve found during a press conference at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.

Stay tuned for more about Pennsylvania’s cannabis crackdown.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross has some explaining to do. Photo via The Philadelphia Inquirer.

  • Philly.com: “Study: High rates of stop-and-frisk even in Philly’s lowest-crime black areas”

“It’s not just black people, but entire, predominantly black, neighborhoods that are disproportionately impacted by the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of stop-and-frisk. That’s a key finding of a new analysis of police data from 2014 to 2015 by Lance Hannon, a Villanova University professor of sociology and criminology who began analyzing publicly available police data after the presidential candidates clashed over the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk in debates last year. He found that mostly black neighborhoods drew 70 percent more frisks than nonblack areas, yet yielded less contraband. And, he discovered, the elevated rate of frisking was consistent whether the predominantly black neighborhood was a high-crime area or a very low-crime area. Although many African American neighborhoods in the city have low crime rates, he said, ‘People, police officers, and nonpolice officers tend to judge the dangerousness of a place based on racial predominance. When they think of a black area as being dangerous, they are thinking of the outliers — and all the other neighborhoods that are relatively safe get painted with the same brush.’”

  • Bloomberg: “Prison Video Visits Are No Substitute for Face-to-Face, Especially at These Prices”

“There are 650 U.S. correctional facilities offering some form of video viewing. Like Tazewell, most are county jails, and three-quarters have eliminated in-person visits, often as a stipulation of their contract with the company charging for the video feeds. Tazewell did so in 2014, when it hired Securus Technologies Inc., a prison phone company that now controls about a third of the video market. The business has been lucrative enough to attract the attention of the private equity world. In February, Platinum Equity LLC, the firm run by Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, agreed to buy Securus for $1.6 billion, more than double the company’s 2012 valuation. The proposed deal has come under scrutiny from both regulatory commissions and prisoners’ advocates, delaying its likely approval.”

  • TeenVogue: “Why Young Girls Die Behind Bars”

“Arrests of young women during fights with family members such as the one that led to Gynnya’s incarceration are unfortunately all too frequent. According to Unintended Consequences, a report by the National Girls Initiative of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, ‘under state domestic violence laws, many law enforcement officers, arriving in homes in which girls are fighting with their parents or caregivers … often respond by making an arrest.’ As a result, ‘in-home conflict is a significant pathway for girls’ involvement in the justice system and many of girls’ arrests are for simple assault of their mothers or caregivers with no or minor injury.’ In fact, one study of 320 domestic violence calls in Massachusetts found that police were more likely to arrest young women in cases of disputes with parents and among siblings than between intimate partners.Nationally, girls of color are disproportionately arrested for assaults of family members in their homes. In Washington State, Black and Native youth are arrested for assault at a rate between 2 and 4 times greater than white youth.”

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