Pennsylvania is Jailing People With Mental Illness Who Belong in Treatment

By Witold Walczak, Legal Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

For the third time in less than four years, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and co-counsel from Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer asked a federal judge last week to order Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services to reduce the time that people with severe psychiatric disabilities spend waiting in jail for treatment beds. These people’s mental disabilities are so significant that under the Constitution they can be neither prosecuted nor punished, which means they cannot be kept in a prison or jail. 

How disabled are our clients?

Most are floridly psychotic. This means that they see people who are not in the room, hear people who are not talking, and feel things — like armies of spiders crawling on them — that are not there. Jail conditions only exacerbate these symptoms and make them deteriorate further. They spread feces on themselves and eat it. Some become violent. 

These people are also very alone. Many of our clients’ families have abandoned them — not because they are bad people necessarily, but because the societal and medical supports to help both their loved one and themselves are not there. And the clients’ illness prevents them from advocating for themselves. These people are helpless, often without anyone even trying to help them. 

Our clients also share in common criminal charges for a range of transgressions, from stealing peppermint candies from a convenience store — I kid you not; check out our lead plaintiff’s story— to murder. But because they are too sick to understand the charges or assist in defending against them, the Constitution prohibits them from being prosecuted or imprisoned. 

If the criminal court determines that mental health treatment will likely make them competent within a reasonable time period, however, the court can order them into “competency restoration treatment.” This treatment need not involve expensive hospital beds; for some people, the treatment can be provided in the community. 

In October 2015, we sued DHS over what appeared to be the longest wait times for incompetent criminal defendants in the country. Two federal courts had ruled that the Constitution requires states to transfer incompetent patients ordered to treatment within seven days. In Pennsylvania, one of the two DHS hospitals accepting such patients was so full that people were waiting in county jails for over a year, and in some cases more than two years.

These lengthy waits in jail are not only plainly unconstitutional: They are inhumane. People with severe psychiatric disabilities, who legally cannot be punished, are held in cages — that’s what a prison cell is, folks — usually with little or no mental health services. Studies reveal that individuals with major mental illnesses, as a group, face a substantial likelihood of getting seriously injured in prison. Confining severely mentally ill patients in close quarters with, and without adequate protection from, large numbers of antisocial persons with excess time and few productive activities results in bullying and predation.

Moreover, their mental illness causes them to act in ways prisons don’t condone, often leading to their placement in solitary confinement. Not only does the patient remain untreated, but the isolation causes the patient to decompensate much faster, exacerbating the mental health condition. These experiences — the trauma of physical and sexual victimization and conditions of solitary confinement, either alone or in combination — often aggravate inmates’ psychiatric symptoms and even create new mental disorders. 

Our first injunction in the case resulted in a January 2016 settlement requiring DHS to study the problem to identify a solution as well as to add treatment beds. We suggested that many of the patients could be treated in community settings, which would be better for them and much cheaper for the agency. When those changes did not reduce wait times, we filed for a second injunction in summer 2017. The second settlement eventually reduced wait times to about 4-5 months, but that was still far too long, legally and medically.

Our third injunction request last week is straightforward: We ask the court to order DHS to meet the seven-day transfer period for all patients by Sept. 1. The agency will need to figure out how to do so. Our clients cannot continue to pay the heavy price of DHS’s failure to fix this problem.

If a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, Pennsylvania is not doing very well. 

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.

PA Prisons’ New Legal Mail Policy Stifles Communications Between Lawyers and Prisoners

Photo: Ali Khan via flickr

By Andy Hoover, Director of Communications, ACLU of PA

At the first day of testimony in federal court in Harrisburg on Tuesday, four lawyers and one person who is currently incarcerated testified that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ new policy of copying and storing mail between lawyers and their clients in the state prisons significantly hampered their ability to communicate with each other.

Federal district court Judge John E. Jones III is presiding over the hearing in PILP et al. v. Wetzel and Hayes v. Wetzel, two cases that challenge the prison system’s policy as a violation of the First Amendment right to attorney-client confidentiality.

In her opening statement, Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, a staff attorney with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, said that the department “overreacted” and that, “There’s a reason no other prison system in the country has adopted this
overly aggressive approach.”

Until last fall, legal mail was opened in front of the intended recipient, checked for contraband, and given to the prisoner. But in October, the department changed that practice. Now, legal mail is still opened in front of the prisoner, but, after checking for contraband, prison staff then copies the document. The copy is given to the prisoner, and the prison staff stores the original.

In testimony today via videoconferencing, Davon Hayes, a prisoner at SCI-Smithfield in Huntingdon who is challenging the practice, said that he has never actually seen the originals placed into the locked bin where they are to be stored and that he is unable to see the copier that is used for producing the copy.

Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and Su Ming Yeh, deputy director at PILP, both represent organizations that are plaintiffs in the litigation and that communicate regularly with people who are incarcerated. Or at least they did. Roper told the court that ACLU-PA stopped sending any privileged communications to people in DOC facilities and instead now sends a generic questionnaire, asking prisoners about their experiences with the new policy. And Yeh testified that PILP no longer sends legal mail that is specific and confidential. She called the department’s policy a “detriment to our cases and to the hundreds of people who contact us.”

Although the department’s policy prohibits staff from reading legal mail that they are handling, Roper testified that the idea that staff will simply avert their eyes from the pages they’re handling is “not credible.”

Furthering the point, in his own testimony, Hayes talked about the experience of a guard looking at his legal mail during a cell search in 2011, long before the policy of copying and storing mail started. According to Hayes, the guard read the complaints that Hayes had filed, including a complaint to the local district attorney. When Hayes asked him to stop, the guard called him “a rat” and kicked his mail and his religious materials.

Also on Tuesday, the court heard from two attorneys from the Federal Public Defender – Leane Renée, chief of the Capital Habeas Unit in central PA, and Lisa Freeland, chief of the FPD in western Pennsylvania. Renée and Freeland both discussed the impracticality of visiting their clients, with long drives across the state and hurdles created by prisons’ rules, which are often different from one prison to the next. Renée testified that, under the previous policy, lawyers in her unit would typically send letters with their opinions and thoughts about a client’s case and draft briefs. Her attorneys stopped doing that when the new process went into effect in October. Because the DOC also requires that legal mail provided by attorneys to their clients during visits be copied and stored, the lawyers in her office have no confidential way to provide physical copies of documents to their clients.

Freeland, who represents Hayes, said that her decision to cease sending confidential information put a strain on their relationship. Hayes had advanced his case through the appeals courts while representing himself. The Federal Public Defender started representing him last year, so when his new attorneys stopped communicating by mail, Hayes became frustrated and threatened to dismiss them, after years of having total control as his own lawyer.

On Wednesday, the ACLU-PA and our fellow plaintiffs will continue our case with testimony from several officials from the Department of Corrections, a former warden of San Quentin Prison in California, and another prisoner. Along with ACLU-PA and PILP, the other plaintiffs and co-counsel include the Abolitionist Law Center and the Amistad Law Project, with volunteer attorneys from the law firm Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis. More information is available at aclupa.org/PILP.

Update: Wednesday’s proceeding has been cancelled due to weather.

Philadelphia Police Should Not Enforce the Bias of 911 Callers

Commissioner Ross’s Response to a New Report Shows He Doesn’t Get It

Credit: Ben Bowens

By Reggie Shuford and Carl Takei

Last month, Juán-Pabló Gonźalez, a Black graduate student at Catholic University, attempted to do something mundane — study in the school’s law library. But the library clerk incorrectly told him he needed special permission to do so and then called campus police on him for being “argumentative.” Seven university officers responded and made him leave despite seeing his school ID.

Gonźalez’s run-in at the library happened within days of a white woman in New York City falsely accusing a nine-year-old Black boy of sexual assault at a Flatbush bodega, leading observers to dub her Cornerstore Caroline.

These are just the latest incidents in which white people have been caught on camera calling the police on a Black or brown person simply trying to go about their daily lives. Unfortunately, while some officers have modeled excellent ways to stop themselves from weaponizing the biases of 911 callers, police departments too often fail to adopt appropriate policies to screen and respond to such calls.

Case in point is the Philadelphia Police Department. In April, after a Starbucks manager in Rittenhouse Square called 911 on two Black men who were waiting for a business associate to arrive, two officers arrested the men for “defiant trespass.” Police Commissioner Richard Ross initially responded by saying the officers “did absolutely nothing wrong.” He later walked it back, stating: “I should have said the officers acted within the scope of the law, and not that they didn’t do anything wrong.”

The department later revised its policy for defiant trespass arrests, but it did not address the role of race and continued to ignore the possibility that 911 callers could be using police to victimize others.

These tasks were left to the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission, the civilian agency that oversees the police department and makes non-binding recommendations to departmental leadership. Earlier this month, the commission released a report evaluating the Starbucks arrest.

The commission found that “the officers were purportedly trying so hard to ignore race that they did not consider race being a factor in the incident even when bystanders were shouting it at them” and that this led the officers to act in inflexible ways that resulted in an avoidable arrest. The commission also noted that some police department leadership took the extremely problematic stance that the officers should have acted no differently even if the manager had requested that “two N-words” be removed from the café, stating that as long as the person making the complaint was legally in the right, racial slurs and racist motivation should not matter.

In response, the commission recommended a series of changes to training and policies that would have led to a better response in the Starbucks incident and other situations when people call 911 to target Black people who are doing nothing wrong.

Commissioner Ross’s response, however, was jaw-dropping. He wrote, “The PPD cannot agree with the statement that racism has a profound effect on what drives citizen and police contact,” and flatly rejected many of the recommendations. The commission recommended that the police department “develop a clear and consistent communication strategy to educate the public regarding how and when 911 should be utilized” and take steps to address the weaponization of police by 911 callers. Commissioner Ross responded that “any messaging by the PPD of when people should or should not call 911 will have a chilling effect” and “compromise the trust in the community that the PPD continually strives to improve.”

The commission recommended that the police department encourage “supervisory assessment of problem solving skills” to help avoid unnecessary arrests. Commissioner Ross rejected this, too, doubling down on the department’s existing “race-blind” approach to racism.

This blinkered approach ignores the fact that if a police officer ejects a Black or brown person from public space purely on the say-so of a white person who is motivated by racial bias, that officer is enforcing racism. When police allow themselves to be weaponized by biased 911 calls, they put Black and brown people at risk, send a message that they must accept living as second-class citizens, and undermine the legitimacy of the police. That’s why the ACLU has launched a Living While Black on Campus campaign aimed at getting college police departments to adopt a simple model policy for screening and responding to bias-based calls and described principles for handling these calls that can apply to all police departments.

Starbucks’ Chief Operating Officer Rosalind Brewer described the April 2018 incident as a “teachable moment” for the company and stated, “Good companies acknowledge their mistakes and learn from them and then make the necessary changes.” Commissioner Ross should take note — if a coffee company can acknowledge its own mistakes and change its policies and practices to regain the trust of people of color, the police have no excuse for refusing to do so.

Reggie Shuford is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. Carl Takei is a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality.

Politicians in Harrisburg are Using People With Down Syndrome

By Rabbi Mordechai Liebling

Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives recently passed HB 2050, a bill that attempts to restrict abortion based on a Down syndrome diagnosis. They did so without holding a single public hearing, and the bill is now before the state Senate. I’m the parent of a son with Down syndrome, and I can tell you what this bill truly is: an attack on a woman’s right to control her own reproductive care decisions in our commonwealth.

The bill would make it a felony to terminate a pregnancy based solely on a prenatal diagnosis that a fetus has Down syndrome. It copies legislative efforts in several other states that restrict abortion access and are now facing legal challenges over their constitutionality. It’s also an infuriating exploitation of people with Down syndrome as political pawns by Harrisburg politicians so eager to interfere with Pennsylvanians’ reproductive freedom.

There are a lot of misperceptions of what it’s like to raise a child with Down syndrome. The reality is that never before have the opportunities been so great for people with cognitive disabilities, from employment opportunities to the level of acceptance in society. If this proposed legislation was truly about protecting the wellbeing of people with Down syndrome, then it would mandate more funding for genetic education and genetic counseling about the realities of having a child with Down syndrome.

Any parent with a child with Down syndrome will tell you their child is a blessing, and our son Lior has added so much to my family. Now 27, he attended a two-year program at Temple University for people with cognitive disabilities and works full-time while living in an independent living community. It’s critical that people understand the possibilities that exist for people with cognitive disabilities, including specially designed college programs and state and local services. Any new legislation should focus on widening access to such possibilities.

The Liebling family

It makes me angry that people with Down syndrome are being used as bargaining chips in Harrisburg to restrict a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her reproductive healthcare. This is purely a manipulative play by anti-abortion legislators, one that we need to fight not only in Pennsylvania’s legislature, but nationwide.

Not all people whose lives are touched by Down Syndrome or cognitive disabilities agree that this bill is the way to advocate for people with those disabilities. Having Lior has brought immeasurable joy to my family, and I’m so glad he came into our lives. But that doesn’t mean parenthood is my – or Harrisburg politicians’ – decision to make for anyone else.

Take action! Tell your state senator to vote NO on House Bill 2050 by clicking this link. Women’s access to reproductive healthcare depends on it!

PA House of Representatives Hopefuls Share Bold Vision for Criminal Justice Reform in Allegheny County and Across Pennsylvania

By Ian Pajer-Rogers, Communications Strategist, Campaign for Smart Justice, ACLU of Pennsylvania

At the Forum For A Just PA in Pittsburgh this week, five candidates for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives fielded questions from community groups, people currently incarcerated in Allegheny County, and voters about their views on criminal justice reform and mass incarceration.

Over the course of the two-hour discussion, which was streamed live on the ACLU-PA Facebook page, it was apparent that candidates in attendance were well attuned to how they might work to bring about meaningful change in Allegheny County and across Pennsylvania.

Allegheny County is the second-largest contributor to the state prison system after Philadelphia, and it holds an average of 2,300 people in its county jail on any given day — many of whom are there simply because they can’t afford cash bail. Almost 50 percent of those people are Black, despite accounting for only 13 percent of the county’s residents.

Pastor Michael Anthony Day moderated the forum and pushed the candidates to get specific on what steps they would take to reform the criminal justice system. A major theme among the forum attendees was putting an end to cash bail in Allegheny County and statewide.

Representative Jake Wheatley of the 19th District, the only incumbent in attendance, noted his 100% percent voting record score from the ACLU Pennsylvania in 2016 and reminded the audience that the broken cash bail system “starts with who we have in the DA’s office. What they ask for within the system controls a lot of what happens with the defendants.”

Summer Lee, a candidate for the 34th District, reminded the room of the racist and draconian roots of cash bail: “When we look at the criminal justice system, cash bail is just another old relic that needs to go … The harsh reality here is that these issues all impact disproportionately people of color and poor communities.”

“Even a few days in jail can ruin somebody’s life,” said Mike Devine, candidate for the 20th District, focusing on the all-too-common outcome of the cash bail system. “A few days. You lose your job. Your license gets suspended. Your family and the whole thing falls apart in a matter of a few weeks. It’s heartless.”

Sara Innamorato, candidate for the 21st District, focused on the profit-motives baked into the cash bail system: “We are running modern day debtor prisons here in the state of Pennsylvania … When you tie our prison systems to creating profit, you’re going to only encourage more mass incarceration.”

“The system isn’t broken. The system works exactly how it was designed,” said Aerion Abney, a challenger to Rep. Wheatley. Jail is “supposed to be reformatory. But the people in jail feel like they’re in purgatory. We have to figure out how we can go back to reforming people back into civil society.”

By the end of the forum, it was apparent that the candidates who attended have a clear understanding of the challenges inherent to reducing incarceration rates and ending racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

We hope that all candidates for public office across Pennsylvania will follow suit and clarify where they stand on smart criminal justice reform.

The primary is May 15.

The forum was co-hosted by Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration – West, ACLU PA, First Unitarian Church, UU-PLAN, Alliance for Police Accountability, Elsinore Bennu Think Tank for Restorative Justice, P.O.O.R.L.A.W., Human Rights Coalition – Fed Up Chapter, Abolitionist Law Center, Let’s Get Free – Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee.

Open Letter in defense of “March for our Lives” student walkouts

Dear Pennsylvania school administrators, solicitors, board members, and educators,

As you are already aware, students nationwide have decided to respond to the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, by engaging in organized demonstrations. Their hope is to promote awareness of gun violence, which has devastated schools and communities across the country, and spark meaningful reform to address this issue. We at the ACLU of Pennsylvania ask that you support them in this endeavor, and refrain from disciplining any students who engage in a peaceful walkout.

Students striving to change their communities and their country through non-violent means should be held up as models of civic engagement, regardless of the issue or the politics involved. School administrators and educators can either punish these civically minded students for violating school rules or seize this opportunity to nurture their efforts to participate in civic life and to effect positive change around them.

If you choose to punish them, you should be aware that, when engaging in political speech, students enjoy constitutional protections both in and out of school.

Outside of school, as you know, students enjoy the same rights to protest as others. During school hours, students have protection for political speech under our state and federal constitutions. Practically, this means:

  • Students cannot be punished for expressing their beliefs unless it substantially and materially disrupts school functioning or the substance is lewd or profane.
  • Students cannot be disciplined for wearing clothes or accessories that express political or issue-oriented viewpoints just because some may disagree with that view.

As students plan walkouts to press for changes in policy, please bear firmly in mind:

  • It is unconstitutional to discipline students more harshly for politically motivated conduct than for similar, non-political behavior.
  • The ACLU of Pennsylvania may intervene if a student who leaves school as an act of political protest faces more severe punishmentthan a classmate would for skipping class for some other reason.

At the ACLU of Pennsylvania, we are continually impressed and inspired by the commonwealth’s engaged young people who stand up for their own rights and the rights of others. Whether or not you agree with their cause, we hope you will join us in encouraging students to use their growing voices to participate in our democracy, rather than becoming another hurdle they have to overcome in their fight to be heard.

Sincerely,

Reggie Shuford
Executive Director

Witold Walczak
Legal Director

Tell Politicians to Stay out of Our Health Care

Pennsylvania lawmakers are poised to vote on a bill restricting essential transgender health services next week. Please take a few minutes to make a call and ask how your state representative plans to vote on House Bill 1933.

Enter YOUR phone number, including area code:



Once you’re connected, tell your state representative:

I am calling about House Bill 1933, which would prevent transgender people insured through Medicaid and CHIP from getting the healthcare they need. I believe that no matter what kind of insurance a transgender person has, they should be able to access the medical care that they and their doctors agree is necessary for their health and well-being. Can you tell me how my representative plans to vote on this bill?


Once you’ve made the call, please take a minute to report back to us about how your representative plans to vote on this bill! You can just fill out this brief form about your call.


Background on HB 1933

Just a few weeks ago, Pennsylvania lawmakers were threatening to hold hostage CHIP, a program that insures nearly 200,000 children, as part of an effort to restrict insurance coverage for transition-related healthcare. Fortunately, the CHIP bill has been stripped of the earlier anti-trans amendment. But lawmakers haven’t given up their attack on healthcare for transgender Pennsylvanians.

A new bill, House Bill 1933, would prohibit CHIP and Medicaid from covering a range of transition-related services for the nearly three million Pennsylvanians, children and adults, who are insured through these programs. It would exclude from coverage everything from counseling to hormones to surgical procedures – even when an individual’s doctor determines this is medically necessary care.

The House plans to vote on HB 1933 the week of December 4th. Your state representative needs to hear from you today!

Help protect healthcare access for transgender Pennsylvanians like Naiymah and Jen’s son, Carter, whose story you can hear below. Call your state representative today.



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

By Midge Carter, ACLU-PA Criminal Justice Intern

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

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

Under the Trump administration, it may expand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

What’s a nice* organization like the ACLU doing in a place like electoral politics?

By Sara Mullen, Associate Director/Advocacy & Policy Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Misplaced priorities have resulted in overflowing jails and prisons, disproportionate prison sentences. The ACLU hopes to change that. Photo via Flickr user Thomas Hawk.

If you are one of the more than 13,000 ACLU members who live in Philadelphia, you may have been surprised recently to find an ACLU #VoteSmartJustice campaign canvasser at your door, eager to talk to you about the district attorney race.

For most of our 97-year history, the ACLU has shied away from electoral politics. Our involvement in the election process has been largely focused on securing and protecting the right to vote for all Americans, particularly those who have been historically disenfranchised.

But times and tactics change. And the ACLU recognizes that if we’re ever really going to fix a large, entrenched problem like mass incarceration, we must throw everything we’ve got at the problem. As part of its Smart Justice Campaign, a multi-year effort to reduce mass incarceration and eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the ACLU recently announced plans for nonpartisan voter education and engagement campaigns in 10 prosecutorial races. Philadelphia is the first.

Why are we focusing on district attorney races? Because, quite simply, we will never significantly reduce our prison and jail populations without addressing the most powerful, unaccountable, and least transparent actors in the criminal justice system — district attorneys.

All too often, prosecutors have been focused on punishment rather than on achieving true justice. With more than 90 percent of cases ending in plea bargains, prosecutors usually have the first and last word on who is incarcerated and for how long. And prosecutors in Pennsylvania have used their influence to lobby state legislators, often creating a roadblock to common-sense criminal justice reform and continuing policies that lead to mass incarceration.

Their misplaced priorities have resulted in overflowing jails and prisons, disproportionate prison sentences (especially for people of color and lower-income people), wrongful convictions, and the imprisonment of people who should instead receive treatment for addiction and mental health issues. They have devastated individuals, families, and entire communities.

Tragically, Philadelphia has the highest rate of incarceration of the ten largest cities in America. Yet despite the vital role the district attorneys play in the lives of Philadelphians — 300,000 of whom have a criminal record — voter turnout for these off-year elections has typically been abysmal.

We and our allies who care about criminal justice reform in this city hope to change that this year. We encourage our fellow Philadelphians who want to end mass incarceration and its horrific impact on our communities to educate yourselves about issues and candidates in the race. Talk to one of our canvassers, many of whom have had direct experience with the criminal justice system. Attend one of the many candidate forums. Visit our campaign website, www.votesmartjustice.org, to find out more about the ACLU’s platform and where the candidates stand on critical issues such as bail reform, transparency, racial disparities, civil asset forfeiture, and the death penalty.

But most importantly, show up to vote on May 16th.

*Full disclosure — it’s possible that not everyone would describe us as nice.

Neither the ACLU nor the ACLU of Pennsylvania endorse candidates.

IN OTHER NEWS

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

More kids come forward, allege abuse at Woodland Hills High School near Pittsburgh. Photo via The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

  • Post-Gazette: “More students come forward alleging abuse at Woodland Hills”

“He released surveillance video Tuesday that showed school resource Officer Steve Shaulis and Que’Chawn Wade, 14, step into an office where they got into an altercation that concluded when the officer punched out his front tooth. The student had to be taken by ambulance to a hospital where his tooth was sewn back into place. Que’Chawn was charged with resisting arrest in the April incident and his case is still pending in juvenile court, Mr. Hollis said. A second video clip shows a March 2015 incident involving a former Woodland Hills student being grabbed by Officer Shaulis and thrown to the ground. In the video, Mr. Murray is seen helping to hold the boy down while Officer Shaulis shocked him with a Taser. Mr. Hollis said that student was acquitted of resisting arrest, but received probation on a charge of disorderly conduct. “They make you flinch when you see what they did to that young man,” said Tim O’Brien, the attorney representing the fourth student.”

Related from the Post-Gazette: “Police watchdog group calls for investigation of Woodland Hills incidents”

  • ACLU-PA: “Latest Stop-and-Frisk Data Shows Modest Improvement by Philadelphia Police, but Much More is Needed, Say Civil Rights Lawyers”

“But in light of the approximately 140,000 pedestrian stops for 2016, that means that 35,000 persons in Philadelphia continue to be stopped illegally each year. Over 77 percent of PPD stops were of Black or Latino people, who make up just over half of the city’s population. A subsequent report, due to be released on May 16, will analyze the racial disparities in these numbers. The presiding federal judge will review the case soon after that. ‘The Philadelphia Police Department’s improvement is cold comfort for the thousands of people, largely people of color, who experience the trauma of illegal stops and frisks by police officers,’ said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. ‘While we appreciate the commissioner’s efforts, the people of Philadelphia are still waiting for an end to illegal stops, six years after the city agreed to do just that.’”

More from BillyPenn: “Stop-and-frisk in Philly: Police say it’s decreasing, but here’s the thing”

“His foot slipped; the machine automatically kicked on. Its paddles grabbed his left leg, pulling and twisting until it snapped at the knee and rotating it 180 degrees, so that his toes rested on his pelvis. The machine ‘literally ripped off his left leg,’ medical reports said, leaving it hanging by a frayed ligament and a five-inch flap of skin. Osiel was rushed to Mercy Medical Center, where surgeons amputated his lower leg. Back at the plant, Osiel’s supervisors hurriedly demanded workers’ identification papers. Technically, Osiel worked for Case Farms’ closely affiliated sanitation contractor, and suddenly the bosses seemed to care about immigration status. Within days, Osiel and several others — all underage and undocumented — were fired.”

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.