By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania
One of the more entertaining aspects of my job as legislative director, aka lobbyist, for the ACLU of Pennsylvania is that I attract all manner of fascinating conversations on a typical day at the state capitol. On a given day, the topics can range from prisons and who’s lying about them to prescription drug monitoring and its potential to be used for political payback to shooting down drones over private property. There is never a dull moment.
Recently, I had a conversation with a law enforcement official I consider a friend, or at least a friendly work acquaintance. (He shall remain safely anonymous.) This person is a civil libertarian in most ways- voting rights, reproductive rights, LGBT equality- but doesn’t get the civil liberties argument for criminal justice. He told me that “my grandfather’s ACLU” would be all about voter ID, reproductive rights, etc. but not criminal justice.
Never mind that the ACLU was involved in the appeals of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s (https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/aclu-history-scottsboro-boys), which led to two landmark Supreme Court decisions and which national ACLU describes as “a milestone in the emergence of a national civil rights movement.”
From its very beginnings, the ACLU was at the forefront of the movement to establish constitutional standards in the criminal justice system and to safeguard against abuses of power by those in law enforcement.
To give you a little peek behind the curtain, “what’s the civil liberties issue” is a familiar mantra for our staff. When we consider taking up an issue, either we ask ourselves that question or one of our board members asks. So why is criminal justice a civil liberties issue? It’s hard to list every reason, but here are a few:
Because the constitution has clear protections and boundaries for the criminal justice system, including a right to an attorney, a right to due process of law, the right to be considered “innocent until proven guilty,” the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to equal protection under the law.
Because “stop-and-frisk” policies by police are disproportionately used against innocent black people, particularly young men. Even if they were not, the police have no right to search someone without cause.
Because stationing police officers in schools inevitably leads to more children funneled into the criminal justice system, particularly young people of color and young people with disabilities.
Because black people in Pennsylvania are five times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana offenses while survey data shows that usage is virtually the same across all races.
Because black people are far more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses, despite using and selling drugs at essentially the same rate as whites.
Because Pennsylvania has consistently had one of the highest rates of minorities sentenced to death in the country. As of last year, 61 percent of inmates on death row in the commonwealth were people of color, mostly black men. At its peak in the last decade, that number rose as high as 70 percent. Even without racial disparities, execution at the government’s hand is the ultimate deprivation of liberty.
Because collecting DNA from people who have not been convicted of a crime without a search warrant violates the fundamental right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. With arrest rates disproportionately impacting minorities, this expansion of DNA collection will inevitably lead to a new pool of permanent, mostly minority suspects. (Note: As of this writing, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has successfully stopped this legislation. Expect it to be considered in the state House this spring.)
I could go on, but this is already too long for a typical blog post. You get the point. For a wide array of reasons, criminal justice is a civil liberties issue. If your grandfather was a member of the ACLU, I hope that he would appreciate our stance for liberty, wherever it needs defended.
This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.