Solitary Confinement Since 1973 – That’s 44 Years

By Matt Stroud and Midge Carter, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Hell is a “restricted housing” cell within Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections. Photo via Flickr user jmiller291.

Daniel Delker is a Pennsylvania prisoner who has been in solitary confinement since 1973. That’s 44 years.

It’s likely that you’re aware, at least on some conceptual level, of what solitary confinement is — that it’s a punishment, often referred to as “the hole,” restricting a prisoner to a cell for nearly 24 hours per day, with rare opportunities to leave the cell for showering and exercise. In Pennsylvania, they call it the “Restricted Housing Unit.”

It’s also likely that you have some idea of what the effects of such an isolated punishment might entail. Maybe you read Atul Gawande’s 2009 New Yorkerpiece “Hellhole” about the reasons why solitary confinement should be considered psychological torture. Or maybe you read The Washington Post’s July 15 editorialcalling out the federal Bureau of Prisons for continuing to use solitary confinement even though its leaders know solitary confinement equals torture.

But if you’re like us, the idea that someone might find themselves in such a circumstance for 44 years — for longer than Beyoncé and Leonardo DiCaprio have been alive — is mind-boggling. Particularly in Pennsylvania, where the commonwealth’s corrections secretary is lauded, sometimes in high-profile outlets, as a reformer.

What surprised us even further when we started looking into Delker’s case was that he’s one of dozens of people confined similarly — on something called the “RRL,” or the “Restricted Release List” — within Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections. Spelled out in the prison system’s DC-ADM 802 procedures manual, the RRL is a group of prisoners held in solitary confinement indefinitely. They don’t know when they’ll be released into general population — and neither does anyone working for DOC.

Recently, ACLU-PA — with the help of spring 2017 Criminal Justice Intern Morgan Everett — came out on the winning end of a months-long public records skirmish with DOC about access to this list. The list itself contains names of RRL prisoners, as well as reasons why those prisoners were placed onto the list in the first place. After DOC denied our initial request to provide the list, we appealed to the Office of Open Records, which eventually came to a compromise decision: that DOC could provide us with names of people on the RRL, but redact the reasons why they were on the list.

Fair enough. To its credit, DOC actually sent us the redacted list and didn’t force us to sue. We’ve since sent surveys to each and every one of the 100 people on that list — 100 people locked up indefinitely in solitary confinement — to get the information DOC withheld, and more: We wanted to find out how long they’ve been locked up, what procedures were individually set up for being released from the RRL, what kinds of conversations they’ve had with counselors during their stay in isolation, and whether they’ve had any interactions with mental health professionals, among other things.

We’ve learned a lot so far. Decades in solitary confinement is not unusual among people on the list, for one, and there’s already been an RRL death since we received the list. About three-quarters of the prisoners on the RRL have responded to us — and we’re learning more with each response we receive. But what we still don’t know is why such a list needs to exist at all.

Atul Gawande said it in “Hellhole.” The Washington Post said it in its editorial a couple weeks back. Countless organizations have spelled it out over, and over, andover again: Solitary confinement is torture. It’s unfair. It’s a drain on resources. And it doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help those who serve sentences in solitary confinement and are then released onto the streets. And it certainly doesn’t help those who have been locked up for 44 years.

The idea that Pennsylvania continues to confine its prisoners in isolation is baffling enough. (More than 2,200 Pennsylvania prisoners — about four percent of the state’s prison population — are confined to solitary.)

The idea that it keeps some of these prisoners in a secluded limbo for decades on end is beyond comprehension.

It’s indefensible.

Let’s hope DOC leaders wake up to that reality soon.

EXCERPTS

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

Debtor’s prisons still exist; Pennsylvania residents are still being jailed for the inability to pay fines. Photo from The Legal Intelligencer.

  • Andrew Christy, ACLU-PA Independence Foundation Fellow, writing in The Legal Intelligencer: “Thousands Jailed in Pa.’s Modern Debtors’ Prisons”

“My investigation of court collections ­practices suggests that many judges on both the courts of common pleas and the ­magisterial district courts fundamentally misunderstand what constitutes a defendant’s ability to pay, and thus what constitutes a willful act justifying a finding of contempt. If a defendant is unable to pay, then that defendant by definition lacks the ability to pay, the failure was not ­willful, and there can be no finding of contempt and incarceration…. Nevertheless, these practices continue to be widespread, as was recently documented by the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness in its report ‘Ending Debtors’ Prisons in Pennsylvania,’ to which the ACLU contributed.”

  • CityLab: “Attorney General’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Orders Are ‘Irrelevant’ in Philadelphia”

“Civil asset forfeiture remains a problem, however. For one, it’s still legit for cops to take your property if they suspect it’s tied to a crime, and the victims of those takings still have no right to a lawyer to get it back. Moreover, the profit incentive for law enforcement officials to pursue seizing people’s assets remains.”

  • The New Yorker: “A Veteran ICE Agent, Disillusioned with the Trump Era, Speaks Out”

“The agent, who has worked in federal immigration enforcement since the Clinton Administration, has been unsettled by the new order at ice. During the campaign, many rank-and-file agents publicly cheered Trump’s pledge to deport more immigrants, and, since Inauguration Day, the Administration has explicitly encouraged them to pursue the undocumented as aggressively as possible. ‘We’re going to get sued,’ the agent told me at one point. ‘You have guys who are doing whatever they want in the field, going after whoever they want.’”

  • Times-Union: “Albany County inmate’s death ‘shocks the conscience'”

“The criticism wasn’t an anomaly for Correctional Medical Care, a Pennsylvania-based private company. A month after Cannon’s death in August 2014 — but long before his case was investigated — the office of New York’s attorney general reached an agreement with the company that allowed it to remain in business in New York with monitoring through May 2018. The company paid a $200,000 penalty and agreed to improve staffing levels and training practices.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.


DONATE
 — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

To Think that SB 8 Becoming Law will Effectively Reform Civil Asset Forfeiture is Naive

By Midge Carter, ACLU-PA Criminal Justice Intern

Elizabeth Young’s Philadelphia home was taken from her because her son was charged with selling marijuana from it. Photo from Philly.com.

Elizabeth Young is a 72-year-old grandmother and lifelong Philadelphia resident. Young has never been charged or convicted of a crime. And yet, in 2010 Young had her home and vehicle seized by Philadelphia police through civil asset forfeiture, a mechanism allowing law enforcement to seize property they think has been involved in a crime, whether or not its owner has been charged or convicted of a crime. Because civil forfeiture takes place outside criminal statutes, those who have their property taken are not afforded legal counsel. The practiceis also financially lucrative for police departments and district attorneys, and it disproportionately affects the poor and people of color.

Under the Trump administration, it may expand.

In a speech Monday to the National District Attorneys Association, Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed intent to “develop policies to increase forfeitures.” According to a senior justice official, Sessions intends to achieve this in part by rolling back Holder-era policies put in place following complaints of law enforcement abuse. To Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, civil asset forfeiture is about bringing in the revenue of crime, not about bringing the crime to court, saying on Wednesdaythat “sometimes there will be criminal prosecutions, sometimes there won’t.” And the current president doesn’t seem to understand the concept of asset forfeiture reform in the least. In February he described forfeiture reform as situations where “[criminals] have a huge stash of drugs. So in the old days, you take it. Now we’re criticized if we take it.”

In the absence of federal guidance, some states are taking initiative and reforming civil forfeiture themselves. Twenty-four states have reformed forfeiture laws, but effective reform is slow and halting. The Institute for Justice notes that a “common refrain in the states where reform efforts have been unsuccessful is that resistance from law enforcement leaders killed the bills.”

For proof of that, look at the Keystone State. Three weeks ago, Governor Wolf signed SB 8, a bill reforming legislation relating to civil asset forfeiture. ACLU-PA has previously written about SB 8, but now that it’s law, let’s recap.

SB 8 started out as a strong bill that would prohibit forfeiture without a criminal conviction. It was backed heavily by advocacy groups. And then law enforcement lobbyists got involved, and the bill was weakened. Wolf signed that version of the bill.

The new reform law doesn’t do much to protect citizens, and what reforms it provides are modest. Although sponsors touted the amendments as raising the commonwealth’s burden of proof, the amended bill places the initial burden of proof on property owners, most of whom are unrepresented, rather than the government. The amended bill also makes it easier for the government to take property by default without the government ever having to present evidence to justify the forfeiture.

It does require a hearing for cases involving real property. But it misses the mark on actual protections. All of the proceeds from forfeiture still go indirectly to law enforcement; they are supposed to be used for fighting drug crime, but often are used for general operating expenses like salaries. In Philly that includes the salaries of several assistant district attorneys who do nothing but forfeiture.

Property owners can still have their property taken away without being convicted of a crime. And counsel still isn’t guaranteed. These are issues that need to be addressed if civil forfeiture reform is going to have any tangible impact.

And people like Elizabeth Young need reform to have a real impact. Young lost her house and minivan after her son, who lived at her home, was arrested for possession and intent to distribute marijuana. He was convicted when law enforcement agents found the drugs after searching Young’s home and car. Law enforcement agents then seized Young’s property, claiming it was connected with the crime.

In order to receive relief, Young had to take her case up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In May, nearly eight years after her house was seized, they ruled in her favor,deciding that authorities must prove that “owner had actual knowledge of the illegal use of the property or consented to the underlying criminal activity” in order to seize assets.

Young’s Pa. Supreme Court ruling is a victory. To think that SB 8 becoming law will effectively reform civil asset forfeiture is naive.

If you’re interested in learning more about civil asset forfeiture, check out ACLU-PA’s three reports on the topic here, read Isaiah Thompson’s ground-breaking reporting from Philadelphia City Paper on the topic, and the Institute for Justice’s Policing for Profit report (which talks a lot about Philly). Sarah Stillman’s excellent piece in The New Yorker is also worth a read, and this bit from John Oliver is worth watching if you want to giggle while you learn and scream at the television.

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

Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than anywhere in the country, and it’s not clear that the nationwide fight to eliminate juvenile life without parole sentences is over. Photo from The Atlantic.

 

  • The Atlantic: “The Reckoning Over Young Prisoners Serving Life Without Parole”

“Life sentences are an American institution. According to a recent Sentencing Project report, more than 200,000 people are serving either life in prison or a ‘virtual’ life sentence: They haven’t been explicitly sentenced to spend their natural lives behind bars, but their prison terms extend beyond a typical human lifespan. Of these prisoners, thousands were sentenced as juveniles. More than 2,300 are serving life without parole, often abbreviated LWOP, and another 7,300 have virtual life sentences. Only after they serve decades in prison do members of the latter group typically become eligible for parole.”

  • Fox43: “PA Supreme Court: Police must obtain search warrant to draw blood from unconscious DUI suspects”

 “The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled today that law enforcement must obtain a search warrant before drawing blood from unconscious suspects they believe to have been driving under the influence (DUI). Justice David Wecht’s opinion recognizes that motorists are ‘deemed to have given consent’ when on the road in Pennsylvania under the ‘implied consent’ statute but notes that the driver, under the same law, has a right to refuse and if he/she can’t, the test may not be conducted. The decision stems from an incident that took place in 2012.”

  • The Marshall Project: “Pennsylvania went too far with new sex offender registration laws, says state’s supreme court.”

“In 2012 state lawmakers amended the “Megan’s Law” there to require lifetime registration requirements. Several men who long ago were convicted of sexual offenses, and who had fulfilled the 10-year registration requirement in place at the time, sued, arguing the new law violated their constitutional rights. On Wednesday, they won their case. Allentown Morning Call Related: Read the decision. Supreme Court of Pennsylvania More: Background on the case. Allentown Morning Call

“The consequences of rescinding DACA would be severe, not just for the hundreds of thousands of young people who rely on the program — and for their employers, schools, universities, and families — but for the country’s economy as a whole. For example, in addition to lost tax revenue, American businesses would face billions in turnover costs, as employers would lose qualified workers whom they have trained and in whom they have invested. And as the chief law officers of our respective states, we strongly believe that DACA has made our communities safer, enabling these young people to report crimes to police without fear of deportation.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

“This place would not pass any health codes”

By Emilia Beuger , ACLU-PA Justice Intern

Are conditions in Pennsylvania’s prisons worse than those run by private prison companies? Photo via A.R.M.E.D.

Prisoners don’t get a lot of meaningful attention. Sure, some reality television shows claim to show “life on the inside” while occasional documentaries bring attention to prison conditions. But, for the most part, prisons serve their basic function — that of regulating prisoners’ “movements, activity, and effectiveness,” as Foucault put it, and of separating them from society. Federal civil lawsuits are filed just about every day by Pennsylvania prisoners who claim to have their rights violated behind bars, but it’s not likely you’ll hear anything about them. Prisoners are a concealed population; to most, they may as well not exist.

Which is why it’s been interesting to follow along as conditions within Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections have received attention recently. Pennsylvania’s prisons are allegedly “dirty,” and “not livable.” The treatment that prisoners receive from guards borders on “harassment.” Did something change just recently? Did a major policy shift negatively affect prison conditions for Pennsylvania’s 51,000-odd residential prisoners causing them to speak out? Nope. Turns out, all it took was a view from the outside.

Some background: On June 12, 2017, 269 Vermont prisoners were transferred from Michigan’s North Lake Correctional Facility to SCI Camp Hill — Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution and processing center, near Harrisburg. The Vermont prisoners had been transferred out-of-state due to overcrowding.

Such transfers occur through the Interstate Corrections Compact. Not every state in the country is a member, but most are. Transfers occur mainly due to overcrowding and security issues, and these transfers tend to benefit private prison companies such as Florida-based GEO Group, and the Utah-based Management and Training Corporation. Another private prison contractor, Tennessee-based CoreCivic, housed some 9,500 California prisoners in three states after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a 2006 state of emergency in Golden State prisons.

But sometimes private prison companies decide they’d rather not bother. That’s what happened in Michigan. GEO Group owns the North Lake Correctional Facility, which was designed to hold nearly 1,800 prisoners. Vermont’s 269 prisoners were the only people inhabiting that facility, so in December 2016, GEO’s executives decided those prisoners weren’t worth the trouble. Vermont’s contract was not renewed.

That turned out to be good financial news for Pennsylvania’s DOC. If GEO Group didn’t want Vermont’s prisoners, Pennsylvania would take them. A three-year agreement was finalized on May 1, 2017, to allow a maximum of 400 Vermont prisoners to be shuttled and dropped into either SCI Camp Hill or SCI Graterford.Vermont would pay $72 per day, per prisoner. Secretary, John E. Wetzel touted the deal to Fox43, noting that Pennsylvania had approximately 5,000 empty beds across the state. “Vermont is looking for beds at the same time we have available beds, so it works out for both states,” he said.

That was more than a little misleading, though. If you look at Pennsylvania’s current monthly population report, sure, it looks like there’s an overall excess of beds statewide. But SCI Graterford, located about 30 miles northwest of Center City Philadelphia, is not only the largest prison in the commonwealth, it’s also one of the most crowded — well over capacity, holding about 110 percent of the number of prisoners it was designed to hold. Same goes for SCI Camp Hill: It’s the commonwealth’s second largest prison, and it’s at more than 105 percent capacity.

Unsurprisingly, the Vermont prisoners — who had the run of a Michigan facility that held only a fraction of the prisoners it was designed to hold — have begun complaining about the conditions at SCI Camp Hill and SCI Graterford. They have expressed concern about “extremely short showers once per day, dirty facilities, only being issued one pair of clothing, and constant yelling and ‘harassment’ from prison guards,” according to the Burlington Free Press. One prisoner recalled being told that “meals here are a privilege not a right.” The prisoners also complained about not having access to a library containing Vermont’s legal code, which is a constitutional right in that state.

Suzi Wizowaty, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, told the Burlington Free Press that Pennsylvania’s DOC clearly “wasn’t ready for us.”

“This place would not pass any health codes,” she went on. “[It’s] really not livable.”

The Vermont inmates may have had access to an unusual amount of space in Michigan, but they were incarcerated, and under the purview of GEO Group — a company whose privately-operated prisons have faced no shortage of condemnation related to conditions and alleged prisoner abuse.

Prisoners are a concealed population, yes. And, to most, they may as well not exist. But the fact that Pennsylvania’s prisons apparently fail to match up to GEO Group’s track record for prison conditions should concern everyone — whether they make it a habit to follow prison news or not.

Maybe this view from Vermont will grant Pennsylvania’s prisoners more of the meaningful attention they deserve.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal Justice news deserving of an in-depth look)

The Third Circuit ruled last week that recording police in public is a First Amendment right. Photo via Campaign Zero.

  • ACLU of Pennsylvania, via Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney: “One of the Nation’s Only Judges to Rule Against Right to Record Police Just Got Overturned”

“On July 7, the Third Circuit reversed that ruling, concluding that Mr. Fields and Ms. Geraci’s First Amendment rights had been violated. The court explained that, because the First Amendment plainly protects the right to possess and distribute photos and videos, it must also protect the act of making those photos and videos. But even more importantly, the court explained, the First Amendment protects the right to gather information about public officials, including police officers. Without a constitutional right to collect and disseminate information about the government, the people would be left in the dark, unable to make informed decisions and participate effectively in the democratic process.” Also check out approving nods from Post-GazettePennLive, and Times-Tribune, and a Facebook Live episode with Molly Tack-Hooper and noted beardsman Ben Bowens.

“Pennsylvania Senate Bill 560 is now Act 22 of 2017, loosening rules around police use of cameras. With the legislation signed, more police departments in Pennsylvania could increase their use of cameras, including body-worn cameras. ACLU-PA staffers Elizabeth Randol, Matt Stroud, and Andy Hoover discuss the implications.”

  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Unsettled in America: Pittsburgh’s Latino community is small, diverse, growing — and anxious.”

“The large majority of Latinos are, in fact, U.S. citizens or legal residents. But tensions are high for those who aren’t, and their families, supporters and anyone concerned about a broader anti-Latino backlash. Immigrants and their advocates have marched in various demonstrations in recent months, often joining with refugees and Muslims challenging similar travel restrictions under the Trump administration. Some are calling for Pittsburgh and other local governments to have ‘sanctuary’ status and not cooperate with deportation efforts. Some local immigrants have been deported already, others have been detained and still others, like Mr. Marroquin, are awaiting hearings. Many, though, have lived with knowing their turn may be next, whether they’re farm workers in an outlying county or whether they’re suburban restaurant dish washers.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

A Small Town in Pennsylvania Is Treading on This Naval Officer’s First Amendment Rights

By Witold Walczak, Legal Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Pictured: Lt. Com. Joshua Corney stands in front of his loudspeakers on his property in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania.

Lieutenant Commander Joshua Corney, an active duty naval officer who lives in rural Pennsylvania, returned from combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan with a promise. As he settled back into life stateside, he wanted to offer a meaningful tribute to his fellow service members — especially those who never had the chance to come home.

So, in 2015, he started playing a recording of taps — a military bugle call most often heard at sunset and at military funerals — on his five-acre property in Glen Rock, a small town of 2,000 people near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. Every evening before 8:00 p.m., Lt. Commander Corney would offer the musical testament to all who have served.

“I play this audio memorial in remembrance of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice as well as those who continue to serve and protect our country and freedoms,” said Lt. Commander Corney, who is represented by lawyers from the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It is a way to honor a promise I made to God — by taking 57 seconds each day to reflect on sacrifices made 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to obtain and sustain our freedoms.”

For nearly two years, his tribute went on with little controversy. The borough allows other music to be amplified on a regular basis, including church hymns and bells and live performances at a local restaurant. At less than a minute long, the recording of taps was one of the borough’s shorter pieces of amplified music. When one neighbor approached Lt. Commander Corney about a year ago to ask if he could turn down the volume, Corney accommodated the request by reorienting the speakers away from the neighbor’s home. But this spring, the controversy erupted when another neighbor complained to the borough.

In response, the borough ordered Corney to limit the playing of taps to Sundays and what it termed “flag holidays.” Each violation of the borough’s order would bring a criminal fine of 300 dollars. But the borough’s enforcement action involves two big constitutional no-nos: the heckler’s veto and content-based censorship.

The borough is relying on a nuisance ordinance that prohibits sound that “annoys or disturbs” others. In a patriotic town like Glen Rock, which is home to many military veterans, it’s no surprise that Lt. Commander Corney has many supporters. But a single complaint triggered the enforcement action. If a “heckler” could shut down anyone who said or played something that annoyed or offended them by complaining to government officials, freedom of speech would be no more. For more than 75 years, it has been black letter First Amendment law that the government cannot censor speech simply because it is not universally appreciated.

Moreover, the borough cannot use its vague nuisance ordinance to single out only Lt. Commander Corney’s musical expression for censorship from the range of sounds that are part of the borough’s regular sonic landscape. The borough has not ordered Lt. Commander Corney to lower the volume of taps or claimed he has violated a noise-level ordinance.

And it could not claim such a violation because the recording neither exceeds any established noise levels nor is it as loud as many other sounds the borough tolerates — including many sounds that do not communicate a message, like lawnmowers, leaf blowers, chainsaws, and vehicles. Censoring clearly protected expression, like taps, for being too loud, while allowing louder sounds that carry no constitutionally protected message turns the First Amendment on its head.

The borough has decided that taps alone, among the other musical sounds in the borough, must be silenced. The borough may not make this type of “content-based” distinction without some compelling reason, which doesn’t exist in this situation.

Last week, the ACLU of Pennsylvania sent a letter to the borough council to insist that Glen Rock drop its threat to fine Lt. Commander Corney and honor his First Amendment right to free expression. The dispute is not yet resolved, but on Friday the borough indicated that it would review the ACLU’s demand at its regularly scheduled July 19 meeting. In the meantime, Lt. Commander Corney will resume his nightly ritual.

Free-speech cases often arise in unusual settings. Some people may be surprised that a serviceman’s broadcast of taps — a song widely regarded as patriotic and intended to honor the sacrifices of those who place themselves in harm’s way to fight for our constitutional rights — would end up being the focus of a First Amendment censorship battle. This controversy is a reminder that no matter who you are or your station in life, you may need the Constitution.

Originally posted at Speak Freely by the ACLU.

“We think Pennsylvania should follow that trend”

By Midge Carter, ACLU-PA Justice Intern

Qu’eed Batts won a victory for all 514 Pennsylvania’s juvenile lifers. But the work’s not done yet. Photo via American Constitution Society.

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court handed down a ruling last week that affects how the commonwealth’s juveniles are sentenced when major crimes are committed. The ruling directly affects juvenile lifers, a segment of the prison population whose sentences have been closely scrutinized in the courts.

Roughly 2,500 individuals in the United States are serving life without parole for crimes that occurred when they were children (JLWOP) . Pennsylvania has the highest concentration of individuals serving these harsh sentences, housing 514 total — roughly one-fifth of all JWLOP inmates nationwide. Three other states — Michigan, Louisiana, and California — hold about one-fifth, combined.

The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed juvenile sentencing several times.

The decision in Roper v. Simmons in 2005 determined that the death penalty for children is unconstitutional. Juveniles have decreased culpability and increased ability to reform, the court found. SCOTUS’s 2011 decision in Graham v. Floridatook that same reasoning and banned life without parole for children involved in non-homicide cases. A year later, in Miller v. Alabama, SCOTUS decided that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a child amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and is thus prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. In 2016, SCOTUS ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller applies retroactively, meaning that juveniles sentenced before 2012 could apply for re-sentencing. It also created a standard for sentencing, arguing that life sentences should only be given to juveniles who demonstrate “irreparable corruption.”

That brings us to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruling last week — and to Qu’eed Batts.

Batts was 14 years old when he shot two teenagers, killing one. In 2007, he was sentenced to mandatory life without parole, which he appealed following Miller, with the help of his Easton, Pa.-based attorney, Philip Lauer. Batts’ appeal was answered with another life sentence, again without the chance of parole. He appealed again.

On June 26, more than ten years after his original sentencing, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

Batts’ argument relied on the language of the Miller decision, which required that life-without-parole sentences be given to only the “the rarest of juvenile offenders.” Imposing a life-without-parole sentence for a juvenile should require “competent evidence that the defendant will forever be incorrigible, without any hope for rehabilitation,” wrote Justice Christine Donohue in her opinion. In the future, prosecutors will need to “prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile offender is permanently incorrigible and thus is unable to be rehabilitated.” That didn’t happen in Batts’ case.

So what will this mean?

For Batts, it means he will be re-sentenced again. (His attorney, Lauer, told the Post-Gazette: “I’m on page 45 [of Judge Donohue’s opinion], and I can’t stop smiling.”)

For the other 514 juvenile lifers that still have active cases within Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system, it means that judges will have to consider youth at the time of the crime, in combination with their potential to change. Optimistically, this will lead to fairer, more just sentences.

“By recognizing a presumption against the sentence and placing the burden on the Commonwealth to establish permanent incorrigibility on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the Supreme Court has properly erected an exceedingly high bar for the state to overcome,” wrote Marsha Levick, Deputy Director and Chief Counsel of Juvenile Law Center, in a statement reacting to the Battsruling. “Such sentences should indeed be rare in Pennsylvania as we now move ahead.”

For Pennsylvania as a whole, the ruling means the Keystone State will come closer to following the national trend of limiting or eliminating life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. In a joint statement, the Abolitionist Law Center and the Amistad Law Project pointed out that the Batts decision falls short in a lot of ways. Indeed, 19 states and the District of Columbia have zero JLWOP cases, and 17 of those have declared JLWOP sentences illegal.

“The trend among our sister states,” wrote Justice Donohue, “is to outlaw entirely the sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders.”

We think Pennsylvania should follow that trend.

IN OTHER NEWS

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

ACLU of Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford speaks at the Beyond the Walls Healthcare and Reentry Summit, part of the 23rd Annual AIDS Education Month on June 28, 2017 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Photo via Holly Clark/Philadelphia FIGHT.

“At a moment where individuals, advocates and elected officials from across the political spectrum are interested in reducing incarceration, there are concrete things to do. Here are a few ideas: Ending stop and frisk and other police practices that disproportionately channel poor people and people of color into the city’s jails. Holding officers involved in the shooting deaths of our brothers and sisters fully accountable. Eliminating the unjust pressure on defendants to accept plea bargains. Addressing overcrowding and other human rights abuses by keeping people at home while they await trial. Increasing access to alternatives to incarceration that address harm, violence, and loss in a way that will lead to real transformation and healing. Supporting the ACLU’s effort to reduce the jail and prison population by 50 percent over the next several years. We need sentencing reform, bail reform, parole reform and prosecutorial reform.”

“Every Circuit Court of Appeals to address this issue (First, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh) has held that there is a First Amendment right to record police activity in public…. Today we join this growing consensus. Simply put, the First Amendment protects the act of photographing, filming, or otherwise recording police officers conducting their official duties in public.”

  • The Intercept: “How Sanctuary Cities Can Protect Undocumented Immigrants From ICE Data Mining”

“One key conduit of information from local police to ICE is through joint federal-local task forces intended to combat crime or terrorism. Police officers in each of the listed ‘sanctuary cities’ that choose to participate are assigned to the local Joint Terrorism Task Force. Though the JTTFs are run by regional offices of the FBI, agents from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations are assigned to all 104 such task forces across the country, and ICE’s own website boasts that the agency ‘is the largest federal contributor to the JTTF.’ Furthermore, police in several cities (Los Angeles, Oakland, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco) have assigned other officers to participate as deputized federal agents in task forces run by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations unit. The task forces are intended to focus on gun violence, gang crimes, and organized crime. According to ICE’s own documentation, local police officers who are deputized as federal agents cannot enforce immigration law. However, HSI receives access to local case files through these task forces, and the task force agreements do not bar HSI agents from detaining people for immigration violations during their joint operations with local police. Nor do the agreements place restrictions on ICE’s access to data maintained by local police or other municipal agencies.”

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