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.

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

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. 

Stories from Philadelphia’s broken bail system

On March 12, 2019, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the law firm of Arnold & Porter filed a lawsuit against bail judges in Philadelphia who regularly violate their own rules when setting bail.

When these bail judges don’t follow the rules, bad things happen. People are being locked up for days, weeks, and months in Philadelphia’s county jail before they ever have their day in court simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project.

Also included as co-plaintiffs are a number of individuals incarcerated in Philadelphia’s county jail because they cannot afford their bail (as of the filing of the lawsuit).

These are their stories.

M.W. is 18 years old and has worked for a local remodeling company since he was 16, which helps cover the bills at home where he lives with his mother and younger siblings.

At a bail hearing following his March 6 arrest, the teleconference audio was not working, and M.W. could not hear most of what his bail judge said. The bail judge never asked whether M.W. could afford cash bail of any amount, finally setting bail at $7,500.

Not being able to afford the $760 required to secure his release, M.W. remains incarcerated, worried that he has lost his job and concerned about the amount of stress his absence is having on his mother and his family.


P.R. was arrested on March 4. At his hearing, the bail judge never asked whether P.R. had the means to afford cash bail before setting bail at $10,000.

P.R. works a seasonal job for an asphalt and concrete company but has not worked since December due to the winter weather. Because of this pause in his income, P.R. does not have the financial means to pay $1,010 required to secure his release.

P.R. is worried that he will still be in jail when his seasonal work resumes. If he is still incarcerated at that time, he will likely lose his job. He is also worried about whether or not he will lose his apartment while in jail without the ability to pay rent.


J.H. has been working for a moving company for the past two years. A devoted family man, J.H. is worried that his fiancé will not be able to pay rent without his income. J.H. also takes his niece and nephew to school on days when his sister has to work.

Without his help while he remains incarcerated, J.H.’s family is struggling to get by.

At his bail hearing, the judge did not ask J.H. whether he could afford cash bail before setting bail at $150,000.

J.H. sits in jail at the time of this writing, unable to pay to secure his release.


“G.T.” was arrested in Philadelphia on March 4, 2019. Fifty-two years old and suffering from chronic pain from a 2014 injury, G.T. is a recipient of food stamps and was living in a car with all of his possessions in the weeks before he was arrested, as he sought an affordable apartment.

At his bail hearing, despite stating that he was currently unemployed and homeless, the judge set G.T.’s bail at $250,000, meaning G.T. would have to come up with $25,010 to secure his release until his trial.

G.T. is worried that his car, full of his possessions and parked on a public street, will not be there when he finally is released. He’s at risk of missing scheduled doctor’s appointments to treat his chronic pain. He’s sure that the leads on apartments will have evaporated. Worst of all, G.T.’s mother is dying of cancer. Everyday that he spends languishing in jail before he’s ever had his day in court is less time that he might spend with his mother.


“K.B.” is a 27-year-old mother of two who was recently arrested in Philadelphia. Despite making clear that she is not currently working and has no other source of income, the judge set K.B.’s bail at $10,000.

The judge never asked K.B. whether she could afford the $1,010 necessary to secure her release. K.B. remains separated from her children, who are five and nine.

K.B. has no idea how long she will be separated from her children before she has her day in court.


Z.L. was arrested on February 26. Just 16 years old, Z.L. was charged as an adult, and his bail set at $300,000. At his bail hearing, it was clear that Z.L. could not hear anything that was said by the bail judge or anyone else, as he tried to put his ear closer to the videoconferencing screen, to no avail.

Z.L. and his family do not have the $30,010 needed to secure his release, and as a result, Z.L. remains incarcerated in adult jail.

A football and basketball player at his high school, Z.L. was starting to look at colleges and was planning to apply to Penn State at the time of his arrest.


According to the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, using bail as a tool to incarcerate an individual before their day in court is prohibited. Further, judges are obligated to ask if an individual can afford to bail themselves out and to consider the ability to pay when setting bail. In other words: it’s against the rules to lock up someone pretrial simply because they are poor.

But in Philadelphia, as the stories above illustrate, that’s exactly what is happening.

The lawsuit filed on March 12 asks the state Supreme Court to force bail judges to follow their own rules.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania will continue to fight pretrial detention and the abuse of cash bail in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania as part of our Campaign for Smart Justice. Learn more at aclupa.org/PhillyBail.

Why won’t Philadelphia follow the rules when setting bail?

by Ian Pajer-Rogers

“G.T.” was arrested in Philadelphia on March 4, 2019. Fifty two years old and suffering from chronic pain from a 2014 injury, G.T. is a recipient of food stamps and was living in a car with all of his possessions in the weeks before he was arrested, as he sought an affordable apartment.

At his bail hearing, despite stating that he was currently unemployed and homeless, the judge set G.T.’s bail at $250,000, meaning G.T. would have to come up with $25,010 to secure his release until his trial.

G.T. is worried that his car, full of his possessions and parked on a public street, will not be there when he finally is released. He’s at risk of missing scheduled doctor’s appointments to treat his chronic pain. He’s sure that the leads on apartments will have evaporated. Worst of all, G.T.’s mother is dying of cancer. Everyday that he spends languishing in jail before he’s ever had his day in court is less time that he might spend with his mother.

“K.B.” is a 27-year-old mother of two who was recently arrested in Philadelphia. Despite making clear that she is not currently working and has no other source of income, the judge set K.B.’s bail at $10,000.

The judge never asked K.B. whether she could afford the $1,010 necessary to secure her release. K.B. remains separated from her children, who are five and nine.

K.B. has no idea how long she will be separated from her children before she has her day in court.

At the time of this writing, G.T. and K.B., like so many others, are incarcerated in Philadelphia’s county jail. Even though they have not been convicted of a crime, they are still being held pretrial because they can’t afford to pay to get out. But working with groups like the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project, they are fighting back.

G.T. and K.B. are, along with eight other individuals being held pretrial in Philadelphia County Jail, co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed March 12 by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the law firm of Arnold & Porter. The lawsuit comes after observing more than 2,000 bail arraignment proceedings and after sending a letter of concern to the First Judicial District last September.

The lawsuit makes a very simple demand: that bail judges in Philadelphia follow the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure.

But before describing how bail judges in Philadelphia are in violation of the rules, let’s remember what bail is. And what it isn’t.

As cited in the complaint, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has “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.”

In other words, bail should never be the sole factor that keeps a person locked up pretrial and judges have a legal obligation to consider whether an individual can afford the bail they set or whether they are effectively locking up a person for being poor.

The 2,000+ bail hearings that were observed in Philadelphia’s First Judicial District over the past year were rife with rule violations.

In many cases, judges would assign cash bail in one breath and a pro bono public defender in the next. Eighty-six percent of the defendants who were observed being assigned cash bail had already been determined to be too poor to afford bail or a lawyer.

The lawsuit calls on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to intervene and ensure that judges in Philadelphia are acting within the parameters of the rules and within the bounds of decency.

While this lawsuit is focused on bail judges in Philadelphia, the overuse of cash bail and pretrial detention is rife across Pennsylvania. We hope that judges and district attorneys statewide will take notice of this lawsuit and take time to review their own practices to ensure fairness, liberty, and justice for all Pennsylvanians.

If not, we will see them in court.

Pennsylvania Can’t Be a Model for Reform if We Undermine People’s Rights

By Andy Hoover, Director of Communications, ACLU of PA

Elected officials and corrections administrators in Pennsylvania have been doing a bit of a victory lap after the recent announcement that our state prison population dropped by 1,000 people in 2018. On the heels of the passage of the Clean Slate Act — a new law to automatically seal some people’s criminal records from public view — some have gone so far as to call Pennsylvania “a model” for criminal justice reform.

But before anyone gets carried away with the idea that the commonwealth suddenly gets it on smart justice, tap the brakes: The legislature is on the verge of granting ballot access to a state constitutional amendment that would undermine the fundamental rights of people who are accused of crimes in pursuit of “victims’ rights.”

We all feel sympathy and compassion for people who have been victimized. It’s neither right nor fair that some people are harmed by someone else’s behavior. If the government can create programs to support victims, that’s all the better.

But the pending constitutional amendment — known as Marsy’s Law and bankrolled by a billionaire from California — is a deeply flawed and downright dangerous undercutting of defendants’ rights. Supporters of the proposal say that they want the rights of victims to be equal in the Pennsylvania Constitution to the rights of the accused. Their narrative fails to appreciate why the state constitution includes the provisions it does – and excludes others.

A person accused of a crime faces the full weight of the state bearing down upon them. The state is attempting to deprive that person of their liberty, possibly even their life. Pennsylvania’s constitutional framers did not want the government to have the power to jail someone without layers of protections. That’s why our principles as a state — and a nation — include due process, a guarantee of counsel, and a presumption of innocence.

Contrast these with victims’ rights, which arise out of a dispute between two private people. One person’s rights against another person are fundamentally different than a person’s rights against the awesome power of the government. This is why our constitution, which lays out the restrictions on government power, includes defendants’ rights and why victims’ rights are primarily contained in statute.

The proposed Marsy’s Law constitutional amendment runs afoul of the protections granted to those subject to the power of the state. The new guarantees in this proposal include a victim’s right to refuse “an interview, deposition or other discovery request” sought by counsel for a defendant. Think about that: A person’s freedom is on the line in a trial, and Marsy’s Law would prohibit them from having the necessary information that could prove their innocence or mitigate the severity of their sentence. That person’s right to a fair trial would be lost, and with it, the chances for grave miscarriages of justice to occur increase.

This legislation also gives victims’ a right “to be treated with fairness and respect for the victim’s safety, dignity and privacy.” On its face, that sounds reasonable. We’re all about fairness and privacy here at the ACLU. But in other states, police officers have used this same Marsy’s Law to hide their identity after they shot people. Law enforcement officers have twisted a law intended for victims to hide their own behavior, at the very moment when transparency is most critical — after an officer has committed an act of violence against a private person.

The proposal in Pennsylvania is littered with vague language. It includes the constitutional right “to proceedings free from unreasonable delay and a prompt and final conclusion of the case and any related postconviction proceedings.” This language could prevent a defendant from having the adequate time needed to present a defense or from the opportunity to have their case heard in the appeals process, which is guaranteed under the constitution. It’s worth noting that once in the constitution, vague language is incredibly difficult to amend when problems inevitably arise.

While our criminal justice system is far from perfect, the guarantees of both the Pennsylvania and U.S. Constitutions are intended to mitigate the mighty power of the state when a person is accused of a crime. Writing Marsy’s Law into Pennsylvania’s Constitution will further empower the state, at the expense of the liberty of the person who is accused. Members of the General Assembly would be wise to slow down, rethink what they’re doing, and, like legislators in New Hampshire, Idaho, Maine, and Iowa, deny Marsy’s Law ballot access.

It’s the End of the Road for the State Legislative Session. So What Happened?

Football player Malcolm Jenkins lobbying in Harrisburg for the passage of the Clean Slate Act.

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.

Wins

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.

Losses

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.

ACLU PA Offers Testimony at Hearing on Police Accountability Following Murder of Antwon Rose, Jr.

ACLU PA Legislative Director Elizabeth Randol

By Elizabeth Randol, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Back in June, I attended a convening with my ACLU colleagues who are working on the Campaign for Smart Justice to reduce mass incarceration by 50% and address systemic racial disparities in the criminal justice system. For three days in Pittsburgh, Campaign for Smart Justice organizers and communicators from across the country had planned on intensive strategy and skill-sharing sessions to make our campaigning as powerful as possible.

Then, on the morning of our second day, we learned that just a few miles away, an East Pittsburgh police officer had gunned down a teenager, Antwon Rose Jr., with three shots to the back as Rose fled a traffic stop.  

Putting aside our planned agenda, we quickly decided to rally and march in solidarity with the Rose family in community protests that evening in East Pittsburgh and the next day in front of the Allegheny County Courthouse.

As the Rose family continues to demand justice for Antwon, we all ask the same question about this case: How was the officer who murdered Antwon just hours into his first day of work in East Pittsburgh hired in the first place despite a long record of disciplinary issues at other departments around the county?

Last week, I testified at a public hearing regarding police training and accountability in Wilkinsburg which is, like East Pittsburgh, a borough just outside Pittsburgh city limits.

The joint hearing, convened by the PA House and Senate Democratic Policy committees and co-hosted by Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Allegheny) and Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), was in direct response to the murder of Antwon Rose, Jr.

The goal of the hearing was to educate lawmakers about what can be done to improve police training and how best to hold an officer accountable when they violate their code of conduct or themselves break the law. The hope is that this, and other public hearings and conversations, will lead to legislation that codifies better training and accountability in police departments statewide.

One recurring theme was the need for better diversity training for all police officers. Wilkinsburg Chief of Police Ophelia Coleman, a law enforcement official for more than forty years, recounted that when she took over her department the training budget for more than twenty officers was only $1500. “Today,” she proudly noted, “it’s no less than $50,000 for training.”

Wilkinsburg Chief of Police Ophelia Coleman

But, Chief Coleman reminded the lawmakers, training alone is not enough. In a perfect world, officers would be patrolling areas in which they are also community members. Calling her department one of the “best kept secrets” in terms of law enforcement in the commonwealth, Chief Coleman shared what she feels makes the officers in her department so successful: “They’re community oriented police with a capital C-O-P.”  

While it’s clear that more training for police is needed across the board, what is equally clear is that training without clear accountability to the community is nothing more than window dressing.

The good news is, when it comes to police accountability, there was a clear interest in tackling the issue among the lawmakers in attendance.  

Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) called for the open sharing of information about officers and a statewide officer database. Sen. Art Haywood (D-Montgomery) referenced legislation he introduced this session that would require the Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor to handle cases in which police officers used deadly force. Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) recently proposed a bill package to improve police-community relationships. And House representatives are expected to introduce a series of other reforms in the coming days and weeks.

When it came time to deliver my testimony, I echoed many of the concerns already raised by advocates, agencies, and law enforcement officials at the hearing. I decided to highlight a few important police accountability reforms enacted in other states, including stricter hiring practices, stronger disciplinary procedures, standardized use of force policies, mandated implicit bias training, enhanced data collection and reporting, and the creation of independent investigations to prosecute officer-involved shootings.

After each instance of police violence, communities all too frequently are left waiting for their lawmakers to respond. Pennsylvanians deserve comprehensive and meaningful reforms that improve community-police relationships, de-escalate police use of force, and that will truly hold police officers accountable for their actions.

“Don’t just introduce legislation that’s easy to pass,” I urged the legislators, “Be bold and show your constituents where you stand by showing them what is possible.”

After I spoke, several legislators asked if the ACLU-PA could provide them with additional resources or assist with writing legislation to address these critical issues. I agreed that we could and would.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania looks forward to being an active participant in drafting and supporting bold and meaningful reform legislation. Justice for Antwon Rose, Jr. and far too many others like him is only possible when we ensure police are better trained and held accountable for their actions when they commit acts of violence.

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.

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.