After deportation, a murder in central Mexico: The case of Juan Coronilla-Guerrero

By Andy Hoover and Matt Stroud, ACLU of Pennsylvania

c’s wife told a federal judge that he could be killed if he was deported back to central Mexico. The judge decided to deport him anyway — and Coronilla-Guerrero was killed. Photo via the American-Statesman.

For a decade, irresponsible public officials and other public figures have used xenophobic rhetoric to fuel a hateful anti-immigrant movement. Some — among them, former Hazleton mayor and now Congressman Lou Barletta and former DOJ bureaucrat and now Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — have gained power by using fear of immigrants as a launching pad for their ambitions, even while their most extreme ideas continuously lose in court. That xenophobia charged our current president’s run to the White House, and its inevitable conclusion is now being seen around the country, as ICE and Border Patrol agents harass, intimidate, and arrest people wherever and whenever they can find them.

Advocates for immigrants’ rights have a fairer, more compassionate vision of America — as a place where people can seek refuge from extreme poverty, extreme violence, and political persecution.

On Tuesday, the Austin American-Statesman reported about the case of Juan Coronilla-Guerrero.

Coronilla-Guerrero was arrested by agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on March 3 when he showed up for a routine court appearance to address misdemeanor charges in Travis County, Texas. That he was picked up in a so-called “sensitive location” highlights how aggressive immigration enforcement has become.

In a federal hearing that followed Coronilla-Guerrero’s arrest, his wife described the gangland environment that she and her husband escaped when they left central Mexico for Austin. She warned a judge that her husband would likely be murdered if he were deported.

The judge wasn’t moved; Coronilla-Guerrero was sent back to his home country. His wife’s warning soon proved prescient: Three months after he arrived in Mexico, Coronilla-Guerrero’s body was discovered on a roadsidenear where he lived with his wife’s family.

As immigration enforcement gets more and more aggressive, we hear stories like this — of immigrants who are essentially refugees, begging to stay in the United States, and being arrested and/or deported regardless. NPR reportedWednesday about the parents of a two-month-old being arrested by Border Patrol agents while their child underwent a serious operation. In Pennsylvania, we hear frequent stories of immigration raids, ramped-up enforcement. When Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas’s Gulf Coast, a worry among undocumented immigrants was whether or not they could go to shelters without being arrested and deported.

Under Trump, Mexicans are “rapists” and we must build a “big, beautiful wall” to keep them out. Under Trump, the problem of immigration is not how to assimilate “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but rather to lend a bullhorn to the “voices of immigration crime.”

But as that fearful, xenophobic philosophy spreads throughout federal law enforcement agencies — and as immigration-related arrests spike to record levels — the aggression of the fierce anti-immigrant movement championed by Trump, Barletta, Kobach, and their ilk creates new heartbreaking stories, new martyrs. Coronilla-Guerrero’s death shows the dangers of deportation itself. It highlights that claims that the United States is overrun by violent immigrants is a fallacy, a claim unsupported by data.

One wonders how those sympathetic to Coronilla-Guerrero will respond.

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

The

A fascinating investigative report from USA Today delved into The Wall, and whether it’s realistic. Of course it’s not, but the details of its impossibility are fascinating. Photo via USA Today.

“‘Build the Wall.’ Three words energized a campaign. But could it be done? What would it cost? What would it accomplish? Our search for answers became this, a landmark new report, ‘The Wall.’ The task was massive. We flew the entire border, drove it too. More than 30 reporters and photographers interviewed migrants, farmers, families, tribal members — even a human smuggler. We joined Border Patrol agents on the ground, in a tunnel, at sea. We patrolled with vigilantes, walked the line with ranchers. We scoured government maps, fought for property records. In this report, you can watch aerial video of every foot of the border, explore every piece of fence, even stand at the border in virtual reality. Still, breakthrough technology would mean nothing if it didn’t help us better understand the issues — and one another.”

“The records depict a slush fund for DA and police spending that runs the gamut from the mundane to the downright bizarre, all enabled by laws that empower police to seize property from individuals sometimes merely suspected of criminal activity. In one instance, the forfeiture ‘bank’ helped top off the salary of a former DA staffer who once served as campaign manager to now-jailed District Attorney Seth Williams. (The office maintains these expenses were appropriate and eventually reimbursed.) Other forfeiture dollars paid for at least one contract that appears to have violated city ethics guidelines — construction work awarded to a company linked to one of the DA’s own staff detectives. (The DAO said it is now conducting an ‘internal investigation’ into these payments.) With little concern for public scrutiny, the clandestine revenue stream also paid for much more: $30,000 worth of submachine guns (equipped with military-grade laser sights valued at $15,000) for police tactical units; a $16,000 website development contract; custom uniform embroidery; a $76 parking ticket; $1,000 in raccoon-removal services; a push lawn mower; a pair of outboard motors; and tens of thousands in mysterious cash withdrawals — along with thousands of other expenses.”

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.

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Could a private prison in Berks turn Trump’s immigration policy into a for-profit venture?

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

One of Pennsylvania’s two for-profit prisons — for now. Photo via Philly.com.

 With Pennsylvania’s troubling record of sending more kids to prison for life thann any other state; of shielding body camera footage from the public; of indefinitely placing people into solitary confinement; and other blatant civil rights violations in the name of criminal justice, you might be surprised to know that Pennsylvania is not overrun with private prisons.

That’s right. Much attention has been given — by me, even — to the river of salivation flowing from the mouths of private prison CEOs and investors as President Donald Trump took office and promised to round up, incarcerate, and deport every single one of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. But those rounded up in Pennsylvania by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been detained in institutions run by government entities, not companies. Those include the Pike and Clinton County Correctional Facilities, the York County Prison, and the Berks Family Residential Center — all operated by government employees.

But things may be changing in Pennsylvania.

In Berks County, leaders have been actively discussing how to pay for a new county jail — a project that could cost as much as $158 million. In a discussion last week, county commissioners said, according to WFMZ, that “privatization needs to at least be an option for the sake of the taxpayers.”

No, it doesn’t.

You don’t need to read Shane Bauer’s 36,000-word Mother Jones cover story about working undercover in a private prison to know how bad they are. You don’t need to fully understand the extent to which the rapes of female detainees at a CoreCivic property in Taylor, Texas, represented the failure of the private detention industry. You don’t need to revisit the “kids for cash” scandal over judicial kickbacks at the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas to understand the pollution of privatizing systems of incarceration: These prisons are chronically understaffed, often poorly constructed, dangerous, and prisoners receive even less in the way of treatment and rehabilitation than they would in a government-run prison.

And while the jail privatization discussion in Berks does not involve housing detainees on behalf of ICE yet, it’s more than conceivable that it might. The numbers that have emerged about ICE’s Pennsylvania operations indicate it’s arresting more people and deporting fewer. If that trend continues, ICE is going to need more space. Berks County Prison sits a half-mile from ICE’s Berks Family Residential Center. Executives with GEO Group or CoreCivic might suggest the jail lend a helping hand — at taxpayer expense, of course.

That Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system is largely devoid of private prisons is a favorable note in a foul cacophony: While commonwealth-based ICE officers round up undocumented residents at record numbers — often taking them from their children and families and friends — at least they’re not currently doing so at the behest of CoreCivic’s or GEO Group’s stockholders. CoreCivic operates zero prisons in Pennsylvania; GEO Group runs only two — one on behalf of Delaware County, the other for low-level offenders with the federal Bureau of Prisons. Compare that to Texas, where GEO operates nine prisons in the Rio Grande region alone, three on behalf of ICE.

ICE’s increasing arrests within the commonwealth are appalling, just like virtually every other effect of the Trump Administration’s caustic rhetoric, contentious policy decisions, and appointments in the name of profit-seeking.

Let’s not add another note to that foul cacophony.

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

No justice, no police. Illustration from the Post-Gazette.
  • Post-Gazette: “Flawed reforms alienate good cops and prolong a crisis”

“In an April interview, Emily Sussman of the Center for American Progress stated that Department of Justice investigations establish systemic corruption before imposing decrees. But in 1997 DOJ did not interview a single Pittsburgh officer, did not allow the police union (the Fraternal Order of Police) any input and ignored a 10-year performance audit by the city controller that largely contradicted their investigation (of which there is no written record). The federal action was based on 66 uncorroborated ACLU complaints. Five years and millions of Pittsburgh tax dollars later, only five cases went to court: cops 2, plaintiffs 3. One plaintiff got $3,000 and the other two got nothing. Federal judges in Torrance, Calif., and Columbus, Ohio, dismissed DOJ ‘investigations’ without trials.” (Of note: This author, a retired Pittsburgh cop and Allegheny County detective, is speaking today — Friday, September 15, at 1 p.m. — at a Duquesne University seminar.)

  • Take Care: “More Empty Threats: The Trump Administration’s Latest Attack on Sanctuary Cities”

“Nowhere has Congress authorized the Attorney General to impose his new conditions on Byrne JAG funding. The purpose of the Byrne JAG program wasn’t to conscript state and local police into enforcing federal immigration law. It was to provide federal grants, mostly based upon set formulas, to support state and local decisions about policing and public safety. Whatever you think of the Byrne JAG program, and there are reasons to think that it ‘gets used for some truly terribly practices,’ there is no clear authorization in the Byrne JAG statute for the Attorney’s General’s conditions.” (Hattip: Dylan Cowart, ACLU-PA’s new Legal Fellow in Pittsburgh)

  • UPDATE: On the shooting of Christopher Mark Thompkins

Last month, we called your attention to the case of Christopher Thompkins, who was shot and killed by Pittsburgh police on his front porch in January. Information about the investigation into that shooting has been nonexistent in the nearly eight months since it occurred, and we called out Allegheny County’s district attorney, Stephen A. Zappala, Jr., for not being more transparent about what’s going on. To his credit, Zappala has now spoken out, and what he’s said is surprising. From this morning’s Post-Gazette:

“Mr. Zappala said his office has for years has had a relationship with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police that allowed his investigators access to and control of the scene of a fatal officer-involved shooting. But he said that did not happen after 57-year-old Christopher Mark Thompkins was shot Jan. 22 inside his home on Finley Street. ‘On that particular matter, the city unilaterally changed their relationship with my office,’ Mr. Zappala said. ‘I’m not satisfied we were able to get on scene in a timely fashion and talk to people who could give us evidence. The matter is being investigated, but we are using a different mechanism.’”

In other words: There may be a grand jury investigating this case. Stay tuned.

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.

Allegheny County DA still silent on shooting of black man on his front porch by Pittsburgh police

By Emilia Beuger and Matt Stroud, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Will Christopher Thompkins’ killing be forgotten?

Thompkins and his ex-wife, Brenda, awoke around 4 a.m. on January 22 to someone standing beside their bed in their home near the eastern border of Pittsburgh’s Larimer neighborhood. As the intruder fled the room, Thompkins asked for Brenda’s pistol. He went downstairs to protect his mother who was sleeping on the first floor. “He was just saying, ‘My mom, my mom,’” Brenda Thompkins told TribLive. “That’s all he was worrying about.” As he went down the stairs, Brenda called 911 and went to a roof behind the house. She surmised that an alarm company may have called the police sooner, however, because when Thompkins reached his front porch, police were waiting for him.

And they killed him.

Thompkins was shot dead that morning through the front door of his home by two Zone 5 police officers. Brenda heard the two gunshots from the roof. Later, as police escorted her downstairs, she saw Thompkins’ body covered by a blanket on the stairs. The man who had broken into their house, Juan Brian Jeter-Clark, was handcuffed and sitting on the couch. Thompkins was pronounced dead at 4:08 a.m. “They shot the wrong guy,” Brenda told reporters.

She was right. We know that somehow in the break-in’s aftermath, those officers mistook a man defending his home and family for a burglar.

What we don’t know is how that happened — and how it might be prevented in the future.

As is typical in Pittsburgh police shootings, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, lead by Stephen A. Zappala, took charge of investigating what happened. The two officers involved in the shooting — whose names have not been released by any public official — were placed on a 10-day administrative leave before they went back to their regular beats.

It’s been radio silence since then. As we approach the eight month anniversary of the shooting, it’s worth wondering why the investigation has taken so long, and why there seems to be little public push to either hold these officers accountable or explain why they should be let off the hook for killing a man.

Media coverage and errant public statements may explain some of the stall. An article published by TribLive on January 22, 2017, described how Thompkins had “run afoul of the law” years before he purchased the house he would later be killed in. KDKA implied he probably shouldn’t have been allowed to carry a firearm — as if that somehow justified his killing by police. Mayor Peduto even felt it was necessary to say, “Mr. Thompkins obviously had some issues in the past,” during a statement he made after meeting with the family. Beth Pittinger, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board, chided the coverage: “I think it’s tragic that the media, and to some extent others, have quietly excused this because the guy had a pretty bad criminal record.”

A second explanation is more troubling: As the months roll past, it’s possible that the investigation of Christopher Thompkins’ shooting is being slow-walked by the District Attorney’s Office in the hopes that it’ll be forgotten. “[If the] officers returned to duty and are back on the force, you can almost conclude that the investigation is done,” said Donald Tibbs, a Drexel University law professor. Yet the investigation drags on nonetheless.

In the meantime, both the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office have said nothing substantive about the shooting, instead invoking silence based on an “ongoing investigation.” While a Right To Know Law request from ACLU-PA has turned up a vague incident report and the name of the responding Zone 5 officers — Joshua Dengler and Richard Cerrillos — not much else is available to the public. That includes body camera footage from the incident, and an affidavit of probable cause, both of which are being withheld because they are “investigative in nature.”

“I don’t know of any legal rules or rulings that say that district attorneys must withhold information from the public,” Tibbs said. So then it is a question of their policy and practices. “District attorneys have a lot of discretionary power,” he went on.

Pittinger said it was “very unusual for an incident like this to be that quiet.” And while she and Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability, acknowledged that the shooting may have been an accident, they question why the public has been left in the dark.

Fisher places responsibility for the delayed and opaque process squarely on the district attorney’s office.

“I think they hold too much power, especially in Allegheny County,” she said. “There is no accountability.”

But there’s a possibility that Stephen Zappala could prove her wrong — by bringing this investigation to a close, and making public not only the affidavit of probable cause from the incident but the body camera footage as well.

Only then, Christopher Thompkins’ killing might not be forgotten.

Kenney’s order claims “openness and transparency”…Almost

By Midge Carter, ACLU-PA Criminal Justice Intern

The decision to release information about complaints made against Philadelphia police officers is a step in the right direction. Photo via Time.

Starting in November, the City of Philadelphia will make all civilian complaints alleging police misconduct available online. Or at least parts of them.

The executive order signed by Mayor James Kenney follows The Philadelphia Declaration’s Philadelphia Police Accountability Project — a  venture designed to accomplish two goals: 1) to come up with $5,000 in copying fees that the city asked for to provide information about police complaints, and 2) to build “a truly independent, publicly accessible database of civilian complaints lodged against the Philadelphia Police Department.” Kenney’s order deflects attention away from the former goal and moves gradually in the direction of the latter.

Kenney’s order, which was signed, it claims, “to ensure openness and transparency,” requires the city to post a monthly list of complaints filed against Philadelphia police officers. The list will include complaint summaries, incident locations, and investigative findings within 90 days of the complaint being filed. The lists will begin rolling out on November 1, and data from the last three years will be uploaded by early 2018.

That’s progress! Revealing complaint summaries and locations is good. That information will allow journalists, citizens, and lawmakers to identify trends and address potential problems.

However, the lists won’t identify officer names, and the city is permitted to withhold “any portion of the investigative file that the Police Commissioner determines must be kept confidential.”

That’s called secrecy. That’s the opposite of openness and transparency.

A further concern is that the information offered online will become the only information available. There is no indication if individuals will be able to receive physical copies of complaints. If not, then the only misconduct complaint information available would be the heavily redacted online information.

Nationally, online police complaint data is becoming more available, largely as a result of civilian pressure. The Los Angeles Police Department has an app for viewing Office of Investigation reports and filing complaints, though the complaints themselves are not available. In Chicago, the police offer little information, but two initiatives, The Citizen’s Police Data Project and Open Oversight have been working to make complaint information available.

Cincinnati makes all complaints available online but without any information that would make identifying an officer possible. NYC’s Data Transparency Initiativemakes complaints public and also offers visual summary reports. However, the information released from individual complaints is extremely limited. It provides only basic location, giving no insight into who filed the complaint or which officer the complaint was filed against. Philly’s online misconduct complaint release will potentially look very similar to New York’s.

Other cities are setting a precedent for more transparency. Baltimore and Indianapolis go a step further than Philadelphia. Both cities’ police departments participate in Project Comport, an online database of complaints. Though Project Comport does not list officer names, it does list “unique identifiers,” allowing civilians to track patterns of officer misconduct. We think Philadelphia should set a higher standard than all of these systems; it should release names.

Mayor Kenney said in a statement on Wednesday, “Everyone who works for the city of Philadelphia is a public servant, and the public deserves to know we will take their complaints about any city service seriously.” How is the public to know if complaints are being taken seriously if they do not know who the complaint is against?

Being unable to identify the public servants involved in complaints cripples the public’s ability to hold them accountable.

If police officers are to be effective public servants, then their misconduct and the complaints lodged against them need to be public as well.

IN OTHER NEWS

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

Juvenile lifers are being resentenced following the Supreme Court’s mandate, but justice looks different across state lines. Photo from AP.

  • Associated Press: “AP Exclusive: Parole for young lifers inconsistent across US”
“For years, officials in states with the most juvenile life cases were united in arguing that the Supreme Court’s ban on life without parole did not apply retroactively to inmates already serving such sentences. Now, states are heading in decidedly different directions. Pennsylvania, which long resisted reopening the old cases, has resentenced more than 1 in 5 of its 517 juvenile lifers and released 58 so far. Attorneys there talk about working their way through all the cases in the next three years. Just two Pennsylvania inmates have been resentenced to life without parole, which the nation’s highest court said should be uncommon and reserved for the rare offender who ‘exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible.’”

  • Juvenile Law Center: “Unlocking Youth: Legal Strategies to End Solitary Confinement in Juvenile Facilities”
“Despite a growing consensus that solitary confinement harms youth and undermines the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system, the practice remains all too common. At the same time, the field lacks sufficient information on the prevalence of the practice, the alternatives, and the perspectives of affected youth and families. This report uses surveys of public defenders, conversations with youth and families, interviews with correctional administrators, and legal and psychological research to fill these gaps and set forth recommendations for reform.”

“The use of money bonds to hold people who are arrested is falling out of favor in an increasing number of courts across the U.S., and Allegheny County is among them. The reasons include concerns about mass incarceration, as well as jail costs, civil lawsuits and studies that find jail time increases the chances of being arrested again. Such concerns have led to efforts to reform the way courts manage defendants before their trial. And the result has been the rise of a more evidence-​based approach for deciding who should and shouldn’t be locked up that takes money out of the equation. ‘Recommending monetary bail was one of the things we did because that’s just how you did things,’ said Janice Dean, director of Allegheny County Pretrial Services, which manages how people arrested are handled before their cases are resolved. ‘But you have people who aren’t dangerous staying in jail because they don’t have the money. And if I have $500,000 to post, no matter how dangerous I am, I’m getting out. Money doesn’t make us any safer.’”

  • Washington Post: “Fired and Rehired: Police chiefs are often forced to put officers fired for misconduct back on the streets”

“Since 2006, the nation’s largest police departments have fired at least 1,881 officers for misconduct that betrayed the public’s trust, from cheating on overtime to unjustified shootings. But The Washington Post has found that departments have been forced to reinstate more than 450 officers after appeals required by union contracts.

Most of the officers regained their jobs when police chiefs were overruled by arbitrators, typically lawyers hired to review the process. In many cases, the underlying misconduct was undisputed, but arbitrators often concluded that the firings were unjustified because departments had been too harsh, missed deadlines, lacked sufficient evidence or failed to interview witnesses.”

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.

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.

“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.

“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.”

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.

We’ve embarked on an ambitious project

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Protesters in Phoenix speak out against ICE’s 287(g) program. Photo via Flickr user Basta287g.

If the 45th president of the United States has reminded us of anything, it’s that government agencies require as much scrutiny now as they’ve ever required before — if not much more. At ACLU-PA, we’ve taken that as a cue to more closely follow the news, to more actively track the actions of lawmakers, and to more doggedly file records requests for information such as budgets or police complaints or internal governmental communications.

When it comes to records requests, we file them not to hector public employees, but rather to engage with the governing process. Sometimes this is done in pursuit of very specific information. (One of our summer interns, Emilia Beuger, this week filed a request with the city of Pittsburgh for body camera footage related to a particular police interaction, for example.) And sometimes it’s done merely to let government agencies know we’re watching.

Along those lines, we’ve embarked on an ambitious project.

You’ve heard of the 287(g) program? It’s one of the “top partnership initiatives” of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It deputizes local police departments to act as immigration officials — to request immigration papers from individuals, and to otherwise “receive delegated authority for immigration enforcement within their jurisdictions,” according to ICE’s website. In 2012, the Obama administration scaled back 287(g) in light of racial profiling allegations. It ultimately shut the program down in 2015.

When we read that the Trump Administration planned to reinstate 287(g), we decided to find out which Pennsylvania police departments wanted to join in.

In recent months, we’ve been slowly rolling out our own program to do so — to ask whether local police departments have requested to be a part of 287(g), and, if so, what their communications with ICE have looked like. This has been no small task; there are nearly 1,200 municipal, county, and state police departments in the commonwealth. But with the help of a team of volunteers, we’re filing requests with all of them, and finding interesting information.

While ICE posts a list of established 287(g) partners online, it certainly doesn’t note who’s asking to take part, and who’s, by reasonable extension, hoping to target undocumented immigrants in their communities for arrest and deportation. We’ve not only identified departments that have made their interests in 287(g) known to ICE, we also have reason to believe that, in at least one case, our questions have inspired law enforcement officials to rethink their request to become trained as a 287(g) department.

There’s a lot more to be done. Stamping out racial profiling and civil liberties violations doesn’t start or end with identifying which police departments want to target undocumented immigrants. But letting police know that we’re here, paying attention to them if they do — well, we think that’s a step in the right direction.

If you have suggestions for other public records requests that ACLU-PA should pursue, please get in contact. I’m at mstroud@aclupa.org. Let’s file dogged public records requests together.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Port Authority’s new fare check policy implements a federal background check on individuals who don’t pay for their fare, which would be enforced by the Port Authority Police. Photo from the Pittsburgh City Paper.

  • City Paper: “Advocates are concerned Port Authority’s new fare-check policy could lead to deportation of undocumented immigrants: ‘Once Port Authority runs your name, ICE will check that name and can detain you.’”

“The new policy, which Port Authority hopes to implement in August, will have riders pay as part of an honor system. Port Authority Police officers will check riders for proof of payment on light-rail cars and at T stations, run federal background checks on riders who don’t pay, and potentially charge repeat offenders with criminal offenses. Ruiz is terrified about what might play out because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has access to the same FBI database through which Port Authority Police will run fare-evaders’ names and addresses. She says this means that forgetting to pay a $2.50 fare one time could lead to a deportation. ‘They are basically turning [light rail] into a border checkpoint,’ says Ruiz.”

  • Good Men Project: “Philadelphia Police Fatal Shooting of Fleeing Black Suspect Akin to 2014 Cover-Up”

“But despite the progress of the police department here — it’s reported that the majority of recommendations issued by the Department of Justice related to use of force and training has been adopted — what does it say about the agency when a rookie and a veteran assigned to the same Police District both use lethal force — Mr. Carrelli before the DOJ issued their report and recommendations and Mr. Pownhall, who may or may not have been equipped with a Taser, nearly two years afterwards — when their life isn’t immediately in jeopardy; no reasonable person would fear for their life when the perceived threat is retreating. I asserted the aforementioned when Mr. Tate-Brown was killed, and I’m asserting it again on behalf of the late Mr. Jones. It’s demoralizing that more than two years after Mr. Tate-Brown was unjustly murdered, there’s no justice realized or on the horizon, only déjà vu.”

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.

Finally, some good news!

By Andy Hoover, Communications Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Under Pennsylvania’s “Clean Slate” bill, records of minor, non-violent misdemeanor convictions will automatically be sealed from public viewing after 10 conviction-free years. Photo from Steven Gottlieb via The Atlantic.

This space can get a little depressing sometimes. It seems like nearly every Friday we’re bringing you the latest bad news from Harrisburg or Philly or some other locale in the commonwealth.

That’s why here in our office this week we were falling over each other to write somegood news.

On Tuesday, the state Senate Judiciary Committee passed Senate Bill 529, known in short hand as “Clean Slate.” This is like criminal records expungement 2.0. Clean Slate works like so: People who have offenses on their records that are specified in the bill will have those records automatically sealed from public view after a period of years without another conviction. No going back to court to argue for it. No filing fees. Poof, it’s gone from public view, and while it will still be available to law enforcement, it will be unavailable to employers, landlords, schools, and nosy neighbors.

Our friends at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS), who have been the lead allies on this along with the Center for American Progress (CAP), describe it thusly:

“Sealing allows Pennsylvanians who show redemption by staying crime-free to move forward with their lives. The bill enjoys broad and bipartisan support, including from some legislators and advocacy groups who rarely find common ground.”

To that point, the bill passed out of committee unanimously and is co-sponsored by a majority of senators. The House version, HB 1419, is co-sponsored by a broad swath of Democrats and Republicans. (The lists of co-sponsors are here and here.)

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is thrilled to join with CLS, CAP, the U.S. Justice Action Network, and many other allies in support of this bill. If it becomes law, Clean Slate will allow people with low-level criminal offenses to truly move on.

Of course, we can’t report from Harrisburg without some bad news. We’ve told youbefore about the terrible, no-good bill that will limit — and effectively end — the public’s access to video produced by police cameras. That bill continues its merry trip through the legislature without a whiff of resistance, passing the House Judiciary Committee unanimously on Wednesday, after it passed the state Senate unanimously last month. The days of seeing police videos in Pennsylvania will soon be over, if this bill becomes law.

Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee wasn’t done. That bill on civil asset forfeiture that has inspired nothing more than a “meh” and a shrug of the shoulders from us passed out of committee, too. Color us unimpressed. This is the first time the state House will have a chance to vote on forfeiture reform, though, and amendments to the bill are starting to trickle in. How this plays out on the House floor remains to be seen.

Reforming the criminal justice system will not happen on a linear trajectory. This path will zig and zag. And this week proved it.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Chief Scott Schubert is expected to provide the Pittsburgh Police department with a steady hand, while avoiding the reforms pursued by his predecessor, Chief Cameron McLay. Photo by Lake Fong, via the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

  • Post-Gazette: “Pittsburgh police chief worked his way to the top”

“Three months into the job, Chief Schubert is steering clear of the reformer role shouldered by his predecessor, Chief Cameron McLay, instead naming community engagement, officer support and violent crime reduction as priorities for the department. ‘There are a lot of goals,’ he said in a recent interview, seated in his office in police headquarters, which is filled to the brim with photos, city memorabilia and awards. ‘But it’s all to make sure we have the best department.’”

  • PRI: “It took a health emergency for this Guatemalan boy, who crossed the border alone, to see a US judge”

“It was the kind of moment an undocumented immigrant dreads: coming face-to-face with the system. If they could have, the cousins would have avoided it. They didn’t have money to pay for hospital bills. But they knew it could be a matter of life or death. So, the two Bartolos went to the hospital. At the hospital, it turned out a lot was wrong. The bubbles were related to Pott’s disease or spinal tuberculosis. Bartolo also had a potentially fatal heart murmur. And he needed glasses. At 5-foot-3, he weighed 90 pounds. Hospital staff wrote in his records that he was possibly malnourished. But getting treated was tricky — he was a minor and even though the US government had placed him with his cousin when he entered the country, his cousin wasn’t actually his legal custodian. No one was. ‘So here he was, a kid who is 16, and he can’t sign the papers, he can’t make informed decisions about his own health care. But no one else could either…. No one seemed to know what to do to handle a kid who doesn’t have health insurance, doesn’t speak English and needed a lot of follow-up care.’ It was a case for the courts.”

“Here, addressing America directly, was a black police officer. Someone who knew both the pain of losing officers in the line of duty and losing a son at the hands of officers. Someone who had worked hard to reform policing, to lower violent encounters. Video of that press conference was shared millions of times because, even during this terrible time, Chief Brown was a symbol of hope. His life is proof that you can support the men and women who serve and protect us and still want cops who violate the public trust to go to jail — or at least lose the badge. You can believe that people should respect and cooperate with police officers, but that not doing so shouldn’t result in death. That people in general should have more empathy and compassion for one another.”

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.

It’s expensive, does not reduce crime, and destroys due process. So why pass it?

By Elizabeth Randol, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman resorted to fear mongering to push for a mandatory sentencing bill to pass the state Senate. Screenshot via PA Senate.

On May 18, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a joint hearing to consider House Bill 741, a proposal to reinstate mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania. Clocking in at five hours, the hearing included testimony from 17 people affiliated with 14 organizations, agencies, and institutions, representing an array of expertise and insights.

At the hearing, I spoke on behalf of ACLU-PA, which has long opposed mandatory minimum sentences. From our perspective, the decision to oppose HB 741 was clear cut.

Not only are mandatories ineffective, they have done exactly the opposite of their intended purpose: They decrease certainty in sentencing, have no deterrent effect on criminal behavior, and have no causal relationship to reductions in crime. They alsoincrease the likelihood of recidivism, and directly contribute to mass incarceration while costing taxpayers a lot of hard-earned cash: Reinstating mandatory minimums in Pennsylvania would likely cost $20 million in its first year.

Those reasons don’t begin to touch due process principles. Historically, our adversarial system entrusts discretionary power to judges who function as the neutral arbiter between two opposing sides, weighing the arguments and considering the facts of each individual case before rendering a decision. Our system assigns the job of judging to judges. But because mandatories are tied to specific crimes, control over mandatory sentencing decisions shifts from the judges (the neutral arbiters) to the prosecutors (one of the adversaries) who have singular and unreviewable authority to decide what charges to pursue.

But central to ACLU-PA’s opposition to mandatory minimums is their obvious contribution to racial injustice. Study after study exposes patterns of uneven and unequal application of mandatory sentences, disproportionately imposed on low income people of color. Mandatory sentencing schemes exacerbate and compound existing racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

Most of us who testified at last week’s hearing offered some combination of these arguments — that mandatory minimums are ineffective and costly; that they exacerbate racial disparities; and that they run roughshod over civil liberties. But running counter to the steady flow of evidence-based, rational arguments were the insistent protestations of HB 741’s proponents. A video recording of the hearing can be found here.

In a raised voice, around the 167 minute mark, Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman made a bold appeal to fear. “Kids are gonna be raped,” Stedman said, because we’ve reduced mandatory sentences. He went on: “I don’t know who it’s gonna be, but it’s gonna happen. And it’s gonna happen more than once.”

During an exchange with Carnegie Mellon University professor Al Blumstein, a giant in the field of criminal justice, Senator Randy Vulakovich pressed him on why there’s no justice for victims. Unconvinced by Prof. Blumstein’s response, he then puzzled around the 96 min mark over why our system doesn’t allow victims to determine the punishment for their perpetrators.

Another senator faced down Dr. Bret Bucklen, the director of research and statistics at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. After establishing that Dr. Bucklen “looks at numbers most of the time” and “hasn’t sat with anyone whose son has succumbed to heroin addiction” as part of his job, the senator declared that he was “offended by his testimony” because it was inappropriate to “keep throwin’ numbers” around when human lives are at stake. Invoking “what the public wants and what the people are demanding” in terms of justice, the senator transformed the will of the people into a torch-wielding tyranny. And in a crescendoed finale, he drew a line in the sand and pitted people vs. facts, refusing to “take numbers over human turmoil and suffering.”

Earlier this year, HB 741 was voted out of the House — a first step toward making this indefensible bill into law. The May 18 joint hearing was the next step in that process. If questions and statements to the committee are any indication, Pennsylvania may well be on its way to reinstating policies that are blatantly regressive, that clearly run counter to all available evidence, and that will exact a steep price from Pennsylvanians.

House Bill 741 is an invitation to regress — a way to re-adopt outdated and ineffective “public safety” measures that disproportionately damage communities of color, and concentrate unreviewable power in the hands of prosecutors.

Please call your senators and urge them to vote no on HB 741.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Room with a view — of the execution chamber at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview, just northeast of State College, Pa. Photo from the Pa. Department of Corrections via Philly.com.

  • Philly.com: “What will happen to Pennsylvania’s death penalty?”

“Pennsylvania isn’t the only state in limbo over the death penalty, as debate has raged over the probability of an innocent person being executed and the propriety of lethal injection as an execution method. Capital punishment is authorized in 31 states, but only seven have carried out executions — 31 of them — since the start of 2016, according to Amber Widgery, a capital punishment policy specialists at the National Conference of State Legislatures. ‘There are people in the world who think that no one innocent has ever been executed, and others who think it happens all the time,’ Widgery said. There are also some who don’t believe you have to constitutionally execute a criminal painlessly, she said, and others who classify lethal injection as cruel and unusual.”

  • The Baffler: “How Larry Krasner’s Victory Sounded from the DJ Booth: Finally, Philadelphia has a decarceration DA candidate, even in Jeff Sessions’s America”

“It was so fucking beautiful. We wanted this. We needed this. I heard it in every cheer, saw it every face, and felt it in every hug. The race had been looking good, but even so, we surprised ourselves. Conventional wisdom said our candidate was unelectable, but here was proof that a politics of dignity for all can win — and win big. On May 16, Krasner garnered more votes than the second and third place finishers combined, and hundreds of people turned up for his election-night party. We packed into the courtyard and community room of the John C. Anderson Apartments, one of the first LGBTQI mixed-income housing projects in the country, to celebrate a historic primary victory that should now, in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one, set the stage for general election success in November.”

  • Institute for Justice: “Grandmother Who Lost Her Home Because Her Son Sold Marijuana Wins Pennsylvania Supreme Court Case”

“‘This is one of the most important civil forfeiture decisions issued by a court and the most important ever issued in Pennsylvania,’ said Jason Leckerman, a Partner at Ballard Spahr, which handled the case. ‘The court has set forth a comprehensive constitutional framework for analyzing forfeiture claims that should substantially curb forfeiture proceedings in Pennsylvania and is likely to influence other state courts considering these issues.’” More from Reason: “Court to Grandma: You Shouldn’t Lose Your House Just Because Your Dumb Son Sold Some Weed There”

  • ACLU-PA: “My graduation from a ‘segregation academy’”

“It was otherwise a mostly good experience, both while I attended CFA and this weekend’s celebrations. Unfortunately, over the course of the weekend, I saw only one other alumnus of color. Then as now, there were folks who appeared a bit leery of me, but most were very cool. Someone at the event asked me if my experience at CFA had informed my decision to become a civil rights lawyer. The truth is that it was not just CFA but my entire experience growing up in the south. And given the current state of things in N.C and beyond, there remains a lot of work to be done.”

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