Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing’s Risk Assessment Tool: What Happened

Ten years after the state legislature mandated that the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing create a risk assessment tool to be used at sentencing, the commission finally voted on and passed a proposal in early September.

The vote comes on the heels of more than three years of public hearings in which the commission and criminal law reform advocates debated the details of proposals while thousands of Pennsylvanians spoke out in opposition to the use of risk assessment tools at sentencing.

Let’s talk about the version of the commission’s risk assessment tool that ultimately passed and what is next.

How does the risk assessment tool that passed work?

Before an individual appears at sentencing, a web-based computer program calculates a risk score, according to the risk assessment tool created by the commission. If the individual scores “high” or “low” according to the tool, a notation is added to the sentencing guidelines form instructing the judge to seek “additional information.” The sentencing judge will not receive the person’s risk label, only a notation regarding more information.

Why is the risk assessment tool problematic?

As with previously proposed versions of the risk assessment tool put forth by the commission, the data points in the worksheet used to label an individual as low, medium, or high risk are steeped in racial biases baked into the system. What’s more, the high-risk label is accurate only about half the time — no better than a coin toss.

What’s next?

Unless the state legislature explicitly rejects the risk assessment tool, it will go into effect on July 1, 2020. Beginning in January, the commission will begin six months of training to help judges learn how to use the tool. Some legislators have floated the idea of not only rejecting the risk assessment tool, but overturning the original mandate. Read more about what legislators can do next in this piece from Senators Street and McClinton.

We will continue to monitor proposals before the commission and work to oppose any and all policies that would perpetuate mass incarceration and racial biases. You can sign up for email updates from the ACLU of Pennsylvania to get the latest information about the commission’s next steps and other important civil liberties issues in the commonwealth.

What’s the good news?

The commission members heard you.

The risk assessment tool could have been much worse. Thanks to more than a thousand ACLU of Pennsylvania members who spoke up to oppose the proposal and critical feedback from our partners, the commission made key changes at the 11th hour so that the version of the risk assessment tool that ultimately passed is far better than the earlier versions.

These changes included scrapping a plan to turn over those individuals deemed to be low and high risk to county probation officers — who are already overworked and under-staffed — to conduct a second even more problematic risk assessment tool and make a final recommendation to the sentencing judge on risk. Moreover, in the current version, a sentencing judge no longer sees the risk labels generated by the tool. Finally, the commission removed many of the extremely problematic factors used to calculate risk. This would have compounded the racial biases that already plague the proposal while slowing the entire sentencing process to a glacial pace that would have meant more people spending more time in jail awaiting sentencing.

Because of your voice, some of the worst pieces of the risk assessment tool were abandoned.

A Vote This Week Could Mean A Tool That Will Deepen — Not Relieve — Racial Disparities In Criminal Sentencing Is Coming To Pennsylvania


Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing public hearing in December 2018 (credit: ACLU of Pennsylvania)

by Nyssa Taylor

It has been said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action and expecting a different outcome. This week, the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing may be approaching their own brand of madness.

A decade ago, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law mandating that the sentencing commission develop a risk assessment tool — a worksheet with the aim of helping judges determine whether an individual being sentenced to one crime would be likely to commit another crime in the future.

For ten years, the commission has time and again failed to fulfill this mandate. Just in the past fourteen months, the sentencing commission has brought forth plans for a risk assessment tool only to be met with opposition from policy experts, individuals impacted by mass incarceration, and many who have worked inside the system. Time and again, these proposals have failed.

With each new attempt to fulfill the mandate, the commission’s proposal becomes more Byzantine and more racially problematic.

With its latest plan, the commission has doubled down by offering the most confusing and complex proposal yet, a far cry from the decade-old mandate to simply create a worksheet.

The current plan on the table is still plagued by the racial biases that are baked into criminal justice data that a risk assessment tool would pull from.

The commission’s latest plan also keeps many of the problematic pieces of past proposals in place while creating a whole new level of unnecessary bureaucracy by implementing an additional, untested risk assessment tool and passing the buck to county probation offices when it comes to actually making the final assessment. Even those deemed “low-risk” by the sentencing judge would be passed to a probation officer for an additional assessment. Across the commonwealth probation offices are underfunded and overworked. Adding work to the already full plate of probation officers makes no sense.

Rep. Todd Stephens of Montgomery County, who is the vice chair of the commission, and some other members seem to think that the implementation of this risk assessment tool will somehow benefit individuals charged with crimes by leveling the playing field. This is fantasy.

The reality is, implementation of a risk assessment tool at sentencing will have a disproportionate impact on people of color. Pennsylvania counties rely on data points directly correlated to race, including zip code, associations with friends and family who have criminal records, education history, and employment status, among other factors. Even the question of whether someone receives public assistance or has “financial problems” scores as a risk factor.

Pennsylvania judges should have the authority to make individual, case-by-case assessments about future risk, not be limited by a one-size-fits-all risk assessment tool.

This farce has gone on long enough. The Pennsylvania legislature should repeal the mandate that the commission create a risk assessment tool. If the commission is to pass the latest proposal in a planned vote later this week, the legislature should register opposition before this policy is ever implemented.

It’s time for smart justice in Pennsylvania. The current proposal in front of the sentencing commission would move us further from that goal, instead of advancing us towards it. When it comes to criminal law, Pennsylvania is near the bottom when it comes to the racial disparities that plague the system. The proposal on the table would double down on these racial disparities and could deepen the mass incarceration crisis for another generation.

We can and must do better.

Take action to urge commission members to oppose the implementation of this risk assessment tool at sentencing:http://bit.ly/NoNewRAT.

Nyssa Taylor is the Criminal Justice Policy Counsel for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania State Police Unfairly Targets Latinx People

ACLU of Pennsylvania clients and their legal counsel stand inside the Pennsylvania State Capitol.

On June 27, after analyzing over 30 incidents involving state police stops and interactions that impacted over 150 people, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and a team of volunteer attorneys filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Pennsylvania State Police and seven troopers on behalf of 10 motorists, challenging the troopers’ unlawful enforcement of federal immigration law. The troopers’ behavior has created fear throughout our commonwealth, and many Latinx people have suffered and are suffering. Below are just a few personal accounts from people who’ve been impacted.

Rebecca’s Story

Every time I think about how we were treated, I tear up. It’s hard to replay what happened to us and to imagine similar incidents happening to others.

I was driving my now-husband, Carlos, and our coworker from Luzerne County to Maryland to install a carport. While sitting at a red light, I noticed a police trooper vehicle in the median. Inside the vehicle was Trooper Macke — he was watching us. During the next several minutes, he made every effort to examine who was in my car and then he yelled out of his window at me to pull over.

According to Trooper Macke, my vehicle “looked suspicious,” and there had been reports of human trafficking in the area. This seemed totally bogus to me — I mean, my pick-up truck was pulling a gooseneck trailer that had no walls and my window tint was within the legal limit, so I don’t know what he was talking about.

His intentions became very clear when he began to interrogate Carlos and our coworker about their immigration status, even though I had given him my license and registration. Eventually, he called ICE and forced us to be questioned by an ICE agent over the phone. He even made me talk with the ICE officer — and I’m a U.S. citizen. We knew that our rights were being violated, but when we tried to stand up for ourselves, he became visibly agitated. His only objective was to hunt down and detain Latinx immigrants.

ICE came and took Carlos and our coworker. Trooper Macke towed my truck, and trailer and I was left stranded with no transportation to get home. It was truly a nightmare.

 — Rebecca Castro

Eduin’s Story

I was traveling from New York to Virginia with my partner and step-children — we were on a trip to visit family. When we got near Carlisle, PA, we were pulled over by Trooper Macke. He said my partner was speeding, but once he began interrogating everyone in the car and asking for our papers, we knew that he stopped us because he saw how we looked and decided we didn’t belong here.

He asked us all kinds of questions about where we worked, how long we had been here, and where we lived — none of his questions were about a traffic violation. Trooper Macke told us that he wasn’t an immigration officer, but he was working with immigration. Then he began to threaten us and said he was going to call ICE.

We were afraid, so we cooperated. My partner had her work visa on her, but my step-son and I didn’t have the documents that he wanted to see, so we were arrested. It was so traumatizing that my step-daughters, one eight and the other eleven-years-old, began to scream and cry as we were driven away.

 — Eduin Cambar Mutate

More stories of what happened to our clients can be read in our complaint at aclupa.org/marquez-psp.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is Serious About Investigating Bail Practices in Philly

Judge gavel with Justice lawyers, Business woam in suit or lawyer working on a documents. Legal law, advice and justice concept.

by Hayden Nelson-Major, Independence Foundation Fellow

After more than a year of gathering data and urging Philadelphia bail judges to follow the letter of the law, in early July, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced that it would launch an investigation into the use of cash bail in Philadelphia.

When an individual is assigned bail in Pennsylvania, the bail judge must follow, by law, the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure. According to these rules, an individual cannot be locked up before their trial simply because they are too poor to afford cash bail. These rules instruct bail judges to assess whether a person is able to pay bail. If the answer to that question is no, then the rules say that the person charged must be released until their day in court.

But that’s not what is happening in Philadelphia.

In March, the ACLU of Pennsylvania joined the law firm of Arnold & Porter to file a lawsuit demanding that Philadelphia bail judges follow the rules and stop jailing people pretrial simply because they cannot afford bail.

The lawsuit followed months of court-watching and witnessing more than 2,000 bail arraignment proceedings. After it became clear that bail judges were not following the rules, the ACLU of Pennsylvania sent a lengthy letterto the First Judicial District detailing the ongoing issues.

In announcing the lawsuit, ACLU of Pennsylvania and Arnold & Porter were joined by advocates from Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project, who shared personal stories from the plaintiffs on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed.

In a statement responding to the court’s decision, Nyssa Taylor, criminal justice policy counsel for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, described what court-watchers saw from observing more than 2,000 bail arraignment proceedings.

“Bail hearings in Philadelphia typically last less than three minutes . . . and the person whose liberty is on the line is not even in the room, as they watch the proceedings by video.”

According to the complaint we filed in March, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has already “reaffirm[ed] that the purpose of bail is to ensure” that a person charged with a crime shows up for court and that “Pennsylvania law favors the release, rather than the detention of an individual pending a determination of guilt or innocence.”

Nobody should be locked up simply because they are too poor to afford to pay bail.

The ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice aims to cut incarceration by half and challenge racism in the criminal legal system. Ensuring that Philadelphia follows the rules when it comes to assigning bail is one step towards this goal. But it is far from the last step.

In Pennsylvania, the use of cash bail and pretrial detention is not unique to Philadelphia. We hope that this lawsuit will send a message to bail judges across the commonwealth that they must follow the rules, and we hope that lawmakers will embrace policies that don’t criminalize poverty.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania will continue to work to achieve the goals of the Campaign for Smart Justice by pushing for an end to pretrial detention, sentencing and prosecutorial reform, and significant changes to parole and probation laws in Pennsylvania.

Learn more about the Campaign for Smart Justice.

Probation in Pennsylvania Keeps People Trapped in the Cycle of Incarceration

by Elizabeth Randol

Imagine a world in which you can be detained by police and thrown in jail for taking a phone call from a family member. Or for walking down the same street in your neighborhood that you’ve been taking for years. Or for getting laid off from your job. 

When an individual is sentenced to probation in Pennsylvania, the government imposes dozens of onerous conditions upon them. These conditions can include a prohibition on traveling outside of the county, forbidding conversation with certain people (basically anyone a probation officer deems disreputable), random and invasive drug testing, home inspections, and a requirement that the person on probation be in their home during certain hours. Those on probation are subject to near-constant government surveillance and supervision. 

“Technical violations,” or non-compliance with any of the numerous conditions of probation, behavior which would never be considered a crime can send that person back to jail for weeks, months, and sometimes years. A study recently released by the Council of State Governments found that 25% of 2017 prison admissions were for technical violations of supervision and 54% of all prison admissions were for supervision violations — clear evidence that probation and parole are key drivers of mass incarceration in PA. 

Pennsylvania is also one of just a handful of states that fails to impose a cap on the length of the probation sentences. Pennsylvania judges have the discretion to dole out probation sentences that can last years, even decades. Living for years with the fear that the smallest misstep will send you back to jail as the government is breathing down your neck every moment is no way to live a life.

Last month, Senator Lisa Baker, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held two days of public hearings regarding probation and parole terms in the commonwealth – a welcome and laudable effort intended to help the committee get their arms around how these complex systems work in Pennsylvania and the minefields people must navigate as they return to their families and communities.

One person who testified and shared her story was Latonya “T” Meyers. T spent nine months in jail even though she was eventually acquitted — she did not have enough money to pay bail. Soon after returning home, T had enrolled in community college and became an advocate for other people in reentry, joining the Defender Association of Philadelphia as a full-time staffer. 

But after a flawless record on parole that led her parole officer to not even require regular check-ins, T’s supervision shifted to probation. That’s where the trouble started. Because of risk assessment algorithm, T was labeled “high risk” and ordered to check in with her probation officer weekly. 

T had to miss work once a week (thankfully her bosses understood) to check in with her probation officer, who told her that because of her high-risk status, she would never be able to ease the terms of her probation until 2027. 

When the city of Philadelphia presented T with an award for being an up and coming leader for those in reentry, T’s probation officer was not in attendance. Instead, she was writing an arrest warrant for T, who was late to their scheduled meeting because she was receiving her award. Her probation officer never acknowledged the award, only asking T the same mundane questions she was asked every week: Did you move? Did you change your phone number? And so on. 

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The Pennsylvania Senate is currently considering a bill, Senate Bill 14, that would reform probation in the commonwealth by capping probation terms and mandating early termination of probation after a certain period with no violations, among other badly needed reforms. 

Probation reform and smart criminal justice reform are not partisan issues or ideological issues. Individuals and organizations across the political spectrum want to see bold, meaningful change. We at the ACLU of Pennsylvania urge the Pennsylvania Senate to move swiftly when they return to session to pass S.B.14 and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to take it up as soon as possible. 

Tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians languishing on needlessly long and punishing probation terms are in desperate need of this reform. Legislators should act accordingly.

Take action to support S.B.14 here.

Elizabeth Randol is the Legislative Director at the ACLU of Pennsylvania

Elected Officials Cannot Block People on Social Media

By Rich Ting and Andy Hoover

From Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” on radio to John F. Kennedy’s mastery at the televised debate, politicians have made use of the latest communications technology to reach people with their message. Today, elected officials as different as Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have mastered social media as a platform.

But communication between an elected official and the people is a two-way street. Thanks to the free speech clause of the First Amendment, politicians cannot eliminate viewpoints they don’t want to hear.

A federal court in New York this week affirmed the right of the people to share their views with elected officials. In a case known as Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University v. Trump, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision that President Trump violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment by blocking certain users from his Twitter account.

In its ruling, the court made a distinction that the ACLU of Pennsylvania has been making over the last two years as this issue has popped up – the relevance of the First Amendment hinges on whether or not the social media account is the person’s official government page or a personal or campaign page. Blocking users from a social media account violates the First Amendment if the account is an official, government-run account with interactive features accessible to the public.  The court noted that “not every social media account operated by a public official is a government account,” and whether a social media account is a government account is a fact-specific inquiry informed by how the official describes and uses the account, to whom features of the account are made available, and how others regard and treat the account.  The decision in Knight, for example, does not apply to personal or campaign social media accounts.

With respect to President Trump’s Twitter account, the court noted several factors indicating the account is an official, government-run account.  For example, the account is registered to “Donald J. Trump, ‘45th President of the United States of America, Washington, D.C.,’” the President uses the account on an almost daily basis to communicate and interact with the public about his administration, the President uses the account to engage with foreign leaders and announce foreign policy decisions, and the account was intentionally opened up for public discussion.  The court found that President Trump, therefore, “is not entitled to censor selected users because they express views with which he disagrees.”

As a private real estate mogul, Donald Trump could block whomever he pleased from his Twitter account. But when he made the decision to run for public office, he lost that luxury. He and other elected officials cannot eliminate people from public discussion based on their viewpoints. Our constitution forbids it, and our democracy demands that those viewpoints can be expressed without obstruction from public officials.

Rich Ting is a volunteer attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Andy Hoover is ACLU-PA’s director of communications.

Meet Caleb Christ, the 2018-19 Frankel Adair Scholar

The Frankel-Adair scholarship provides $1,500 in support of post-secondary education to an LGBQ&T student residing in the greater Philadelphia area. The scholarship honors the late Larry Frankel, former executive and legislative director of the ACLU-PA, and the benefactor, Thomas T. Adair. For more information about the scholarship, visit this link.

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

My lived experience as both a queer person and a transgender man motivated my pursuing a second undergraduate degree in the field of nursing. Interning at the Allentown Women’s Center and having the opportunity to help develop and implement their transgender health program sparked my passion for healthcare. I have been an advocate for people accessing transition-related healthcare, navigating insurance hurdles, and breaking down barriers to care. I would not be where I am today if I had not been able to access affirming, transition-related healthcare that allows me to live as my authentic self.

What do you see as the critical issues facing the LGBQ&T community at this time?

Access to expert healthcare for LGB and especially transgender communities is critical, along with health insurance that meets the unique needs of these communities. We also must address the ways that racism, class, and incarceration create barriers to healthcare, housing, and employment.

Do you envision your own career having an impact on concerns of the LGBQ&T community?

Healthcare as a whole has been slow to implement the level of training necessary to provide truly affirming care for transgender patients. Though LGBTQ competency is beginning to be included in health and medical education, there are many gaps. I hope to advocate for LGBTQ patients through the care I provide, through research and policy, and through clinical excellence.

What other social issues motivate you?

Sexual health and reproductive rights, rethinking the carceral system, homelessness, substance use, mental health and wellness — all these issues have an impact on access to healthcare and are crucial to address in tandem with being a healthcare provider.

The Philadelphia Police Department has a Racism Problem

By Reggie Shuford, Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

The job of a police officer is to serve and protect the community, no matter the racial, ethnic, religious, or socio-economic status of that community. Real justice is blind, and police officers are the front-line arbiters of justice in America.

But as a new, comprehensive report and database from the Plain View Project makes clear, many of the police officers in Philadelphia and across the country operate under a vision of justice that is anything but unbiased.

The analysis, which was first reported by Buzzfeed News, provides a searchable, public database of deeply disturbing social media posts from police officers in Philadelphia and seven other police departments, including York, Pennsylvania. While the names of people who interacted with the posts have been redacted, the names of the police officers who authored the posts have not.

The bottom line? The Philadelphia Police Department has a racism problem. Fortunately, the Plain View Project database names names, revealing exactly which officers are not fit to fulfill their duties to serve and protect.

The deep-seeded racism plaguing the department won’t be unraveled overnight. While the police officers whose hate-filled posts have been exposed should be dismissed immediately, the racism in the Philadelphia Police Department can’t and won’t be rooted out until the department faces the issue head-on. After all, this culture most assuredly runs deeper than the police officers who made publicly viewable social media posts.

People of color already have legitimate reasons for lacking trust in law enforcement in Philadelphia; our ongoing litigation over stop-and-frisk practices has proved that time and again. The behavior exposed by this report provides even more evidence for why that distrust is warranted. Hundreds of police officers in Philadelphia openly express hostility and antipathy toward the people they “serve.”

And the report only exposes those officers who did not hide their views behind a privacy wall. How many more officers say the same thing under the cloak of stronger privacy settings?

Over the past decade, with the emergence of smartphone technology, the epidemic of police violence driven by apparent racial animus has been well-documented. While many thought that the use of police body cameras would offer a measure of accountability that might prevent police killings, those hopes have been dashed as police officer after police officer wins acquittal in cases where their killing of unarmed civilians was caught on video.

The disturbing social media posts uncovered by the Plain View Project reinforce the sad reality that police can get away with anything, from brazen racism to murder.

Police culture in Philadelphia and across the nation must change. But it can’t change if those in power —mayors, police commissioners, city council members— don’t address the problem boldly and urgently. Until then, it’s difficult to see how the public – particularly communities of color – can trust police to do their jobs, leaving “serve and protect” as nothing but a bitter punchline.

Police Are Ill-Equipped to Help People With Mental Health Disorders

Osaze Osagie (photo courtesy of the Osagie family)


By Reggie Shuford, Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Last month, District Attorney Bernie Cantorna of Centre County, Pennsylvania, announced that his office would not criminally charge three State College police officers who were involved in the shooting death of Osaze Osagie, a 29-year-old Black man, in March. Osaze was shot and killed in his own apartment building. The only reason the officers were there is because his parents called the police to ask for help with their son, who was having a mental health crisis. The police responded to the parents’ plea to help a mentally ill person, and they ended up shooting the young unarmed Black man dead.

Cantorna’s decision wasn’t surprising, of course. Despite the epidemic of officer-involved killings – 992 people were shot and killed by police in the United States in 2018, disproportionately people of color – officers are rarely charged by prosecutors. And when they are charged, they are rarely convicted, even in a case like the death of Antwon Rose, a 17-year-old boy who was unarmed and running away from a traffic stop when he was killed by Officer Michael Rosfeld in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last year. Rose’s death was filmed by a bystander, but the jury acquitted Rosfeld anyway.

In Osaze’s case, there were no witnesses, and there was no video footage. There were four people on the scene; one of them is dead and the other three are police officers. So, Cantorna was left with only the officers’ stories in conducting his investigation. When he announced his decision, Cantorna effectively acted as a mouthpiece for the police. And he refused to name the officers involved, leaving people in State College to wonder who on the police force killed a man.

Osaze came to the attention of the State College police because his family was concerned that he may have been having a mental health crisis. The officers knew this when they approached his door. According to a statement released by the family, Osaze’s father was in the neighborhood, looking for him. DA Cantorna stated that all three officers had crisis intervention training and one had been trained as a crisis negotiator.

And yet, with all of that training and Cantorna’s contention that the officers followed it, Osaze still ended up dead.

The fact is that police officers should not be first responders to people who are in crisis. When they are, the odds increase that the person in crisis will be killed. Research indicates that at least 25 percent of people who are killed by police are in crisis. Helping people who are struggling with mental health disorders is a public health issue and is better left to healthcare professionals.

Some cities in the United States are taking this approach, sending crisis counselors or at least paramedics and nurses to the scene when the situation does not involve a crime in progress. And for the narrow situations in which police must respond, their training needs a total overhaul, to emphasize de-escalation techniques.

It was disappointing and, frankly, a bit frightening that DA Cantorna actually suggested loosening Pennsylvania law to make it easier for police to intervene with people with mental health disorders. State law only allows involuntary commitment when a person is an imminent danger to harm themselves or others. Cantorna’s rationale is that broadening the law will allow intervention before a person is in crisis.

While his reasoning sounds logical, in practice, it would likely lead to more tragedies like the death of Osaze Osagie. As long as police culture and training cling to a mentality of control and violence, giving police more power to engage a person who has not committed a crime is a terrible idea. The public needs less interaction with the police, not more.

According to Cantorna, more than 300 mental health warrants were served in Centre County in 2018. And Osaze’s death was the first officer-involved killing in the State College Police Department’s 100-year history.

That is little solace to the Osagie family, who called the police to help their son, not kill him.

Voters Showed Up in Pittsburgh to Talk Smart Justice. Their DA Did Not.

Panelists (from right to left) Lisa Freeland, Paul Jubas, Turahn Jenkins, Alyssa Snyder

by Ian Pajer-Rogers

On May 9, with less than two weeks to go before the first contested district attorney primary in Allegheny County in 20 years, ACLU-PA co-hosted a candidate forum to give voters the opportunity to hear from the incumbent, Stephen Zappala, and the challenger, Turahn Jenkins.

Unfortunately, voters were not given this opportunity as Mr. Zappala chose not to attend the forum. Speaking with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the days following the forum, Mr. Zappala stated, “I’m not interested in talking politics with the ACLU or socialists.”

The charge that the candidate forum was “socialist” might come as a surprise to some of the co-hosts of the event, including the conservative group Americans For Prosperity, which, among other issues like criminal justice reform, advocates for a free market — Eugene Debs acolytes they are not.  

Once it was clear that Mr. Zappala was not going to attend, the candidate forum became a community forum, with three defense attorneys and a community organizer joining Mr. Jenkins on the stage for a vigorous discussion about smart criminal justice reform. The discussion ranged from topics such as money bail and pretrial detention, mandatory minimum sentences, and probation reform.

When discussing the need to get rid of mandatory minimum sentencing, Lisa Freeland, a federal public defender for Western Pennsylvania, noted that “most efforts to eliminate mandatory minimums have been met by prosecutors with the following: ‘we need mandatory minimums because it’s the only way to get a plea bargain’ … The prosecutors need these, they believe, to squeeze people.”

But, Ms. Freeland continued, “The real problem with mandatory minimum sentences is that they don’t work.”

In a conversation about much-needed probation reform in Pennsylvania, attorney Frank Walker neatly summarized what happens when a person violates probation, saying, “If you mess up on probation in state court and you mess up and go before the judge, they can do whatever they want … the worst part about it is you don’t see the judge right away when you violate. You might sit in jail for months before you see the judge again.”

Turahn Jenkins agreed and also invoked the financial burden associated with the fees and financial penalties that accrue while on probation, effectively criminalizing poverty, reminding the audience that there is “a large segment of our population on probation because they can’t afford to get off probation.”

The discussion turned briefly to the outsize influence that the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association has in shaping legislation and lobbying the legislature.

The problem, according to Ms. Freeman, is that “the prosecutorial side of an adversarial system is seen as being fair and reasonable, while the defense side of that same system is seen as partisan — we just want to let people out of prisons … that’s a danger of having the PDAA without having an organization on the other side.”

The discussion ended with calls from Mr. Jubas and Mr. Walker for Allegheny County to institute a conviction integrity unit, which would review and make public all data regarding convictions in the district attorney’s office. District attorney offices are notorious for their lack of transparency and accountability. A conviction integrity unit would offer a measure of transparency and accountability to the public. A similar unit was established in Philadelphia several years ago and has been given an increase in resources under the leadership of DA Larry Krasner.

It’s a shame that Mr. Zappala declined to attend the candidate forum. A strong democracy is rooted in the ability of the voting public to make an educated choice at the ballot box. By ignoring requests to attend this candidate forum, as well as neglecting to respond to a criminal justice reform survey sent to both candidates, Mr. Zappala is not giving voters the chance to make that educated choice.

While Mr. Zappala completed a questionnaire on criminal justice reform earlier this year, he declined to respond to a candidate survey. You can see Mr. Zappala’s questionnaire responses and Mr. Jenkins’ survey responses at KnowYourDAinPA.org.

We encourage all Allegheny County voters to learn more about each candidate for DA and make a plan to go vote on May 21.

Ian Pajer-Rogers is a communications strategist with the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Campaign for Smart Justice.