By Elizabeth Randol, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania
It’s official: Today marks the legal end of the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s two-year legislative session. The ACLU-PA’s work in Harrisburg often ranges from hair-on-fire to hurry-up-and-wait. Sometimes we’re able to celebrate our proactive work getting good legislation enacted. But much of what we do, and no less important, is defensive — trying to prevent bad bills from passing or making bad bills less bad.
If there’s one mantra we repeat at the ACLU-PA, it’s to pay attention to your state legislators. Bills passed in Harrisburg often have a far greater and more immediate effect on your life than those enacted in Congress.
In the 2017-2018 legislative session, we celebrated two major victories that will significantly improve the chances of people getting back on their feet post-conviction. The first was the passage of the Clean Slate Act. This new law – the first of its kind in the nation – automatically seals from public view the criminal records of people convicted of certain summary and misdemeanor offenses if they are not convicted of another crime within ten years.
The legislature also repealed a longstanding mandate to suspend drivers’ licenses of people convicted of crimes unrelated to operation of a vehicle, many of them drug offenses. Repealing this mandate will prevent more than 20,000 Pennsylvanians a year from unnecessarily losing their licenses.
We also successfully beat back yet another attack on reproductive freedom when Governor Wolf vetoed an abortion ban that, had it been enacted, would have been the most restrictive ban in the country and stopped a discriminatory amendment from the CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) reauthorization bill, which sought to prohibit insurance coverage for transgender-related healthcare services.
The most frustrating loss this session was a bill that enabled the use of police-worn body cameras in Pennsylvania. While the use of body cameras can be an effective means of ensuring police transparency, the bill exempts footage from the state’s right-to-know law, severely restricting public access to video recorded by police cameras. As a result, it undermines the ability to hold police accountable and instead equips them with a powerful data collection and surveillance tool.
On the Lookout
There’s no rest for the weary – the General Assembly returns and reboots in January. Next session we anticipate continued fights against abortion bans, so-called “sanctuary city” legislation, restrictions on police transparency, and a proposed amendment to the PA Constitution known as Marsy’s Law.
The most significant battle we are preparing for is a campaign to prevent the reinstatement of mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania. Reinstating these archaic provisions is an invitation to regress by re-adopting outdated and ineffective “public safety” measures that disproportionately damage communities of color and concentrate unreviewable power in the hands of prosecutors.
The midterm elections didn’t change the balance of power in Harrisburg — we still have a Democratic governor and Republican-controlled House and Senate. Democrats did pick up five Senate seats (breaking the Republican supermajority) and 11 House seats, which may result in increased negotiating leverage for Democrats. But those wins came at the expense of losing most of the moderate Republicans remaining in the legislature. And that may, unfortunately, result in an even more polarized legislature heading into the 2019-2020 session.
We know that it can feel like there are a lot of fires burning right now for people who care about civil liberties – not to mention basic human decency. We’re going to need you to achieve our goals at the state legislature next year. So rest well, enjoy the holidays, and we’ll talk again in January.