Meek Mill’s sentence reveals problems with Pennsylvania’s extreme use of court supervision

By Reggie Shuford, Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Hip-hop artist Meek Mill was named one of the 100 most influential Philadelphians by Philadelphia Magazine. However, rather than his music, his recent prison sentence is what has garnered the spotlight, helping to focus attention on the problems of our criminal justice system, specifically the issue of court supervision in Pennsylvania and its impact on mass incarceration.

Rapper Meek Mill arrives at the criminal justice center in Philadelphia, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This past week, on November 6, Judge Genece E. Brinkley sentenced Mill, 30, to two to four years in state prison for a probation violation. Over ten years ago, an 18-year-old Mill was arrested for drug and gun possession. In 2009, Judge Brinkley sentenced Mill — who was then known by his given name Robert Rahmeek Williams — to 11 ½ to 23 months in prison, followed by eight years of probation. Since that time, the judge has overseen his case.

Many people are outraged over the injustice of Mill’s lengthy sentence, and they should be. Criminal justice advocate Jay-Z, whose Roc Nation recording company signed the Philadelphia native, took to Facebook and called the sentence “unjust and heavy handed,” pledging to “always stand by and support Meek Mill, both as he attempts to right this wrongful sentence and then in returning to his musical career.” Said CNN contributor Van Jones, “It is absolutely outrageous. It is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never heard of a case where a brother stands before a judge; the prosecutor says, do not put this brother in jail; the probation office says do not put this brother in jail; And, for some reason, the judge says I’m going to put him in jail any way.”

And a petition on Change.org in support of Mill is closing in on 200,000 signatures.

The public outcry over this case underscores how people are sent to prison over technical violations versus direct violations. A probationer incurs a direct violation if he or she is convicted of a new crime while on probation. A person who has failed to comply with the terms of their probation — but who has not committed a new crime — receives a technical violation. Pennsylvania law permits a judge to incarcerate a defendant only if he or she already committed, or is likely to commit, a new crime. Even more problematic, that same statute allows a judge to impose prison time if “such a sentence is essential to vindicate the authority of the court” — which means the law allows a court to incarcerate someone merely if the judge feels disrespected.

What did Mill do to cause the judge to send him to prison? This past year, he was arrested for a fight in the St. Louis airport — charges were dropped — and took a dismissal deal for reckless driving and “popping a wheelie” on his dirt bike.

Meanwhile, 4.65 million adults in the U.S. are on probation or parole, or 1 in 53 adults. Pennsylvania — which has the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast — has the fourth highest number of people under government supervision, long after they committed their crimes, with 280,000 people as of 2015, and one-third of all prison beds in Pennsylvania are occupied by people who violated the terms of their probation or parole. This comes at great expense to Pennsylvania’s taxpayers, diverting precious resources from education and social services.

Meek Mill has become the face of probation and parole and the excesses of a system that ensnares so many without celebrity status. When the law allows judges to incarcerate people under their supervision solely because of a technical violation — when they committed no new crime and pose no threat whatsoever — we have a problem.

My transgender son is trying to find his way. Politicians aren’t helping.

By Ellen*

I’ll never forget when my son, Jacob, told me that he is transgender. He was 13 years old at the time, and we were out for dinner. As he ate his lobster, he looked at me and said, “Mom, I’m in the wrong shell,” as tears welled in his eyes.

Since his decision to live openly as male, I have done everything that I can to support his healthcare needs, both physical and emotional. We found a pediatrician who has a well-deserved reputation for being supportive of transgender kids, and she has been wonderful. The Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia has also been an irreplaceable resource. He is now 15 and has the healthcare support that he needs.

His social isolation, though, has been a greater struggle. When Jacob came out, he was attending a brick-and-mortar charter school. Being an adolescent is hard enough, but being a transgender teenager is incredibly difficult. We all know that teens can be abominable to one another, and his classmates did not understand Jacob’s experience and gave no indication of interest in understanding what it’s like to be transgender. He had one friend who outed him to others who did not know that he’s trans, which compounded his social anxiety. He now attends a cyber charter school. He has become introverted, uncomfortable with other kids, and friendship with others his age is very difficult for him.

Philadelphia Trans March, October 7, 2017 (photos: Rick Urbanowski Photography)

I celebrate and am grateful for the many trans kids who are able to live their lives openly with support from their families and their friends. I want my son to live the fullest life possible as the person he is, and I hope we’re moving toward a day when transgender people in America are treated with the same respect and dignity as everyone else.

Politicians compound the challenges for transgender youth when they actively pursue discriminatory policies against the trans community. When elected officials use transgender people as a wedge to score cheap political points, it feeds a negative narrative about the lives of trans people, and that narrative is felt acutely by young people.

The Pennsylvania Senate recently engaged in this very kind of underhanded behavior when it passed a bill to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program with a provision that prohibits CHIP coverage of transition-related surgical procedures. This isn’t a benign policy discussion about how expansive CHIP should be. This is an effort to diminish the humanity of trans youth. If it becomes law, this bill would deny coverage of medically necessary and sometimes life-saving medical care for transgender young people. It feels like nothing less than dehumanization of my son and kids like him.

Jacob and I are lucky that we are able to access private health insurance. Unlike our state senators, though, I have a basic level of empathy, and I don’t need the experience of using CHIP to be able to relate to any parent of a transgender child who just wants the best healthcare coverage possible for their kid.

The teenage years are fraught with challenges. And transgender teens face unique hurdles that cisgender kids do not. They don’t need politicians making things worse.

*Ellen and her son live in Lehigh County. She writes using pseudonyms for both herself and her son to protect their privacy.

Is it time to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania?

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Is it time to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania? Photo via herb.co.

Citations and charges can ruin lives. It can be traffic tickets with fines too high to afford, disorderly conduct charges, other non-violent offenses, or even violent offenses that reflect an earlier time in someone’s life before they had a chance to grow up and reform. Any entrance into the criminal justice system can be an automatic ticket to second-class citizenship — a way for employers to discriminate, for judges to make unfair sentencing decisions, and for peers to judge.

As part of ACLU-PA’s efforts to reduce the commonwealth’s incarceration rate, it’s our goal to lessen the number of people ensnared into the criminal justice system. We consider Pennsylvania’s marijuana laws to be low-hanging fruit in that regard.

While a recent Franklin & Marshall poll found that 59 percent of Pennsylvania residents believe marijuana should be legal, retrograde laws nonetheless trap thousands of people in the criminal justice system for pot-related offenses every year. And those numbers have risen in recent years.

Over the last several months, we’ve worked with marijuana advocates and data specialists to quantify Pennsylvania’s cannabis crackdown. And on Monday, October 16, we plan to reveal what we’ve found during a press conference at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.

Stay tuned for more about Pennsylvania’s cannabis crackdown.

IN OTHER NEWS

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

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross has some explaining to do. Photo via The Philadelphia Inquirer.

  • Philly.com: “Study: High rates of stop-and-frisk even in Philly’s lowest-crime black areas”

“It’s not just black people, but entire, predominantly black, neighborhoods that are disproportionately impacted by the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of stop-and-frisk. That’s a key finding of a new analysis of police data from 2014 to 2015 by Lance Hannon, a Villanova University professor of sociology and criminology who began analyzing publicly available police data after the presidential candidates clashed over the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk in debates last year. He found that mostly black neighborhoods drew 70 percent more frisks than nonblack areas, yet yielded less contraband. And, he discovered, the elevated rate of frisking was consistent whether the predominantly black neighborhood was a high-crime area or a very low-crime area. Although many African American neighborhoods in the city have low crime rates, he said, ‘People, police officers, and nonpolice officers tend to judge the dangerousness of a place based on racial predominance. When they think of a black area as being dangerous, they are thinking of the outliers — and all the other neighborhoods that are relatively safe get painted with the same brush.’”

  • Bloomberg: “Prison Video Visits Are No Substitute for Face-to-Face, Especially at These Prices”

“There are 650 U.S. correctional facilities offering some form of video viewing. Like Tazewell, most are county jails, and three-quarters have eliminated in-person visits, often as a stipulation of their contract with the company charging for the video feeds. Tazewell did so in 2014, when it hired Securus Technologies Inc., a prison phone company that now controls about a third of the video market. The business has been lucrative enough to attract the attention of the private equity world. In February, Platinum Equity LLC, the firm run by Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, agreed to buy Securus for $1.6 billion, more than double the company’s 2012 valuation. The proposed deal has come under scrutiny from both regulatory commissions and prisoners’ advocates, delaying its likely approval.”

  • TeenVogue: “Why Young Girls Die Behind Bars”

“Arrests of young women during fights with family members such as the one that led to Gynnya’s incarceration are unfortunately all too frequent. According to Unintended Consequences, a report by the National Girls Initiative of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, ‘under state domestic violence laws, many law enforcement officers, arriving in homes in which girls are fighting with their parents or caregivers … often respond by making an arrest.’ As a result, ‘in-home conflict is a significant pathway for girls’ involvement in the justice system and many of girls’ arrests are for simple assault of their mothers or caregivers with no or minor injury.’ In fact, one study of 320 domestic violence calls in Massachusetts found that police were more likely to arrest young women in cases of disputes with parents and among siblings than between intimate partners.Nationally, girls of color are disproportionately arrested for assaults of family members in their homes. In Washington State, Black and Native youth are arrested for assault at a rate between 2 and 4 times greater than white youth.”

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.

“No prison is as dirty as this one”

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Lackawanna County Commissioner Patrick M. O’Malley pins a captain’s badge on County Corrections Officer William Shanley. A civil lawsuit alleges that Shanley was part of an elaborate sexual assault scheme in Lackwanna County Prison, and that O’Malley played a role in attempting to cover it up. Photo via Lackawanna County.

Let’s talk about the raid at Lackawanna County prison.

During more than 10 hours last Thursday, investigators with the Pennsylvania State Police and the state Attorney General’s office descended upon county facilities in Scranton.

We linked to a related story last week, but it’s worth some further contextualization. Though Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office has been mumon the reason for the law enforcement attention, multiple news outlets reported that it involved a grand jury investigation into allegations of sexual abuse. The Times-Tribune even added up the tab that Lackawanna County has paid thus far to correctional officers placed on administrative leave while the investigation unfolds.

If it does involve sexual abuse allegations, there are some hints about where its focus might lay.

Have a look at this civil complaint. It’s horrifying. It alleges that numerous current and former Lackawanna County correctional officers — such as John Shnipes, who was forced to resign in 2013, and William Shanley, who now serves as a captain at the prison — used the institution as grooming ground for perverse sexual conquests with female inmates both inside the prison and while inmates were on work release. Not only does it allege that COs carried out continual sexual attacks on multiple female prisoners, but it explicitly accuses other officers and high-level officials of perpetuating an elaborate cover up.

Just as an example (and there are many in the complaint), county prison officials, for years, received troubling information about Schnipes’ sexual attacks at the prison. They even convened a grand jury in 2010 to investigate him. Between 2011 and 2013 — while he was under active investigation — the complaint says Schnipes continued sexually assaulting women at the prison, and even set up other COs to carry out similar attacks.

Schnipes was eventually forced out. But there have been allegations — some in court, as recently as this year — that whatever actions occurred following that grand jury investigation were little more than window dressing to give the appearance of aggressive oversight while a broader sexual assault conspiracy continued.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that was the case. As outlined in the civil complaint, Patrick O’Malley — a Lackawanna County Commissioner who served as a corrections officer at the county prison for 15 years — is alleged to have shared information that he learned from Prison Board meetings to a CO who had come under fire, “warning her that she was going to be investigated.” The complaint concludes that “this was part of the cover-up and conspiracy perpetrated by him and other policy makers which caused Plaintiffs to be assaulted and caused the delay in them uncovering the current cause of action.”

As the Times-Tribune’s Borys Krawczeniuk pointed out on Sunday, Lackawanna County prison has a shocking history of criminal staff behavior. Institutional sex crimes are only part of it: Employees have been accused of physical assault, graft, failing to treat sick and injured inmates, and even failing to perform simple housekeeping duties.

“No prison is as dirty as this one,” a source told Krawczeniuk.

That source was being literal — referring to employees actually failing to clean dirt and grime from the prison. But he may as well have been speaking of the culture as a whole.

Whatever the outcome of Shapiro’s probe, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered about Lackawanna County prison.

Maybe soon we’ll have answers.

IN OTHER NEWS

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

Barbed wire fencing at the State Correctional Institution Phoenix. Photo via The Philadelphia Inquirer.

  • Philly.com: “How computers are predicting crime — and potentially impacting your future”

“‘The sad thing is you risk shooting yourself in the foot when you behave as if you have something to hide,’ Berk said. ‘There’s nothing to hide.’ Probation and Parole’s unwillingness to release details about its risk-assessment tool, used to manage supervision for nearly every offender under its watch for the last eight years, strikes at concerns that have been simmering as Philadelphia prepares to create a similar computer model for use in bail decisions. Some who are watching that process closely have questioned whether the tool will be racially biased, whether the factors it weighs will be made public, and, fundamentally, whether a computer algorithm should play any role in deciding a person’s future.The debate is sure to be rigorous, as it has been in the dozens of other jurisdictions across the country already using risk-assessment tools to help guide decisions about bail, sentencing, and parole. The tools, like judges, are bound to make bad forecasts that could lead to the release of a suspect better kept incarcerated until trial or the over-supervision of a parolee who might then struggle to keep a job. The question that divides the criminal justice world is whether risk-assessment tools make the imperfect process used now better or worse.” Related from BillyPenn: “Can Philly’s new technology predict recidivism without being racist?”

  • More Philly.com: “America, we need to talk about this ‘police riot’ in a major U.S. city”

“We live in a nation that has always given broad leeway to law enforcement, and I have no doubt that many people reading this — perhaps the majority — will insist that the overzealous police response was nonetheless necessitated by the handful of folks among the crowd who did, most regrettably, commit acts or vandalism or violence. But that attitude overlooks the bigger and most alarming reality of what actually has been happening in St. Louis: A police force determined to go well beyond its public-safety responsibilities to assert an intimidating level of social control, to show who runs public spaces in ‘their’ city — them, and not its citizens — while crushing any dissent targeting its own sordid history of misconduct, including a record of white officers killing black civilians at a rate unmatched by other large cities. Lest there be any doubt of this last Sunday night, as scores of people were carted away, deprived of liberty, officers marched in formation through the pacified thoroughfares of St Louis, stunning the remaining journalists and onlookers by chanting, ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ — both echoing and mocking the protesters in greater St. Louis who have been marching for social justice since the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. A short time later, the city’s acting police chief bragged that ‘we owned the night.’ Left unanswered was the question of whether a community where police own the streets and own the night is, by definition, a police state.””

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.

Finding the Path to Transgender Equality

By Naiymah Sanchez, Organizer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Naiymah and Dena Stanley at the 2017 TEAP Convening in September 2017.

Last week, the ACLU hosted the annual convening of its Transgender Education and Advocacy Program (TEAP) in New York City. This yearly gathering brought together seven ACLU affiliates who have identified transgender equality, advocacy, and leadership development as part of their programming goals.

This year, each TEAP affiliate was asked to bring one community member from their state to help shape the directions of the movement in their states. I had the pleasure of attending the convening with Julie Zaebst, senior policy advocate at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and Dena Stanley, the director of TransYouniting and a board member of the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh, to brainstorm on our goals of achieving comprehensive nondiscrimination protections in state law. In Pennsylvania, we have been fighting for comprehensive nondiscrimination for almost 14 years, and we won’t stop now.

At the convening, we focused on not just the goals but the tactics we need to choose that will push us towards winning definitive nondiscrimination protections. Here at the ACLU of PA, we are dedicated to building a stronger coalition of organizations and community leaders to get us where we need to go.

Naiymah Sanchez is an organizer and the transgender advocacy coordinator at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

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.

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.

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.

The government can’t send you a bill for your free speech

Protesters march during the “Philly is Charlottesville” March and Rally on August 16, 2017 (credit: Ben Bowens)

By Elizabeth Randol, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Imagine if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., future Congressman John Lewis, and their compatriots in the civil rights movement had been stuck paying the fiscal costs of Sheriff Bull Connor’s harassment, beatings, and arrests. Under a proposal before the Pennsylvania Senate, people who take to the streets to express their political views would have to do exactly that if they end up on the wrong side of the law.

On August 16th, four days after the white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, Senator Scott Martin (R-Lancaster) introduced a bill that could hold protesters liable for public safety costs associated with demonstrations. But despite the timing, Charlottesville wasn’t the primary trigger for this proposed legislation; the Dakota Access Pipeline protests were.

Under Senate Bill 754, courts could hold individuals convicted of protest-related misdemeanors or felonies liable for all public safety costs associated with demonstrations. This legislation is most certainly unconstitutional and would likely be struck down in federal court, but only after a costly legal fight.

While it may bother the primary sponsor and his friends in the energy industry that people of indigenous heritage opposed the pipeline, public protests and demonstrations are strictly protected by our First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly. The expression of those rights may sometimes incur costs, but those are collective public safety expenses which are collectively paid by us through our taxes.

SB 754 proposes two worrisome legal changes, both of which are certainly unconstitutional. First, it unreasonably expands the definition of liability. Individuals convicted of protest-related misdemeanor or felony offenses can be forced to pay for costs not directly resulting from their actions or even related to the crime of which they were convicted. Courts, of course, can already impose fines and restitution costs for expenses associated with a specific offense. But it would be unconstitutional to hold someone — even those convicted of protest-related offenses — liable for costs associated with other people’s actions or costs incurred to provide general public safety support at a demonstration.

Second, SB 754 selectively narrows the potential targets of this expanded liability. General public safety costs are recovered only from specific people engaged in a specific kind of activity, namely protesters exercising their constitutionally-protected rights to speech and assembly.

If this bill is enacted, it is doubtful it could withstand a constitutional challenge. In order to protect the First Amendment freedoms of speech and association, the Supreme Court has sharply limited the government’s authority to impose liability on organizations or their members for misconduct or criminal acts that occur during political demonstrations. Lower courts have similarly rejected attempts to hold demonstrators liable on the grounds that the government can recover their costs through existing civil and criminal sanctions against those directly responsible.

Furthermore, because municipalities generally do not impose responsibility for using public spaces on particular users, holding protesters liable would place an intolerable burden on their constitutional rights. In this context, the measures proposed in SB 754 are constitutionally suspect.

Equally alarming but no less important is the chilling effect this legislation would have on free speech and assembly. The prospect of being held liable for demonstration costs if, for example, you are convicted of obstructing a sidewalk (a misdemeanor offense), may well provide a strong disincentive to participate at all.

SB 754 is not the only bill targeting demonstrators. SB 652 was introduced by Senator Mike Regan (R-Cumberland and York) in April. It, too, was crafted in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. SB 652 creates a new category of properties, comprised of eighteen different types of critical infrastructure facilities, and imposes severe penalties for criminal trespassing on those properties. In many cases, what are currently summary or misdemeanors offenses are enhanced to second and first degree felonies under this proposed legislation.

Even if neither bill is enacted, the measures they propose offer valuable insight into how our legislators perceive public protests and the worrisome ways they choose to respond.

Free speech is free. The government can’t send you an invoice.

Elizabeth Randol is the legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Reproductive Rights are Human Rights

By Franchesca Ramirez, Summer Intern, ACLU of Pennsylvania

The state of Oregon has made recent headlines for its triumphant passing of the Reproductive Health Equity Act, a new law that ensures all residents of the state have access to health services, including family planning, abortion, and postpartum care. The act, proudly supported by the ACLU of Oregon, guarantees reproductive health care for all women, regardless of income, gender identity, or citizenship status. It represents defiance towards the Trump administration’s agenda and a beacon of hope for women in the rest of the country.

Meanwhile, in backward Pennsylvania, the state legislature is considering what would be one of the most restrictive policies against abortion in our nation, Senate Bill 3. SB 3 shortens the length of time during a pregnancy that a woman is permitted to have an abortion and entirely bans a common method of the procedure.

Also in the state legislature is Senate Bill 300, which restricts funding to Planned Parenthood and, thus, limits the accessibility of reproductive health care, including contraception, for Pennsylvania residents who rely on their services. This bill seeks to defund health care providers that offer abortions, in effect, defunding Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of these health services in the U.S. Planned Parenthood educates millions of people every year, offering knowledge and services for contraceptive care and preventing thousands of unplanned pregnancies. Unfortunately, there aren’t already enough other providers availing this knowledge and these services, so expecting them to absorb Planned Parenthood’s clientele is unimaginable. Informed family planning doesn’t just benefit individual families; it promotes the stability of the U.S. population. To protect reproductive rights is to honor the Constitution and protect the future of our country.

The reality is that millions of Americans would struggle without the information and preventative care necessary to plan their lives, possibly threatening their own health and the stability of their families. In this case, it wouldn’t be farfetched to predict that the number of abortions would increase access to contraception decreases.

Protecting reproductive rights is not a “women’s issue.” Reproductive rights are a human issue, like all other rights too often threatened by regressive policymakers. Stripping women of this liberty symbolizes a disregard for the rights of all Americans. It is not an issue that should be decided based on the selfish values of an elected few without consideration of the large populace they represent. Unsurprisingly, it is in Pennsylvania, the state ranking 48th in the country for the percentage of women in elected office, that this restrictive legislation is being considered. For too long, majority male officials in positions of power have applied their ignorance and short-term vision to policy affecting millions of people — particularly women, who have been historically underrepresented in society.

It is always necessary to put aside one’s own personal beliefs when making decisions that affect others. The issue of abortion is no exception. The best thing lawmakers in Pennsylvania can do is mirror the actions of Oregon’s legislators by voting to protect access to reproductive education and services, recognizing them as rights rather than ideological preferences.

Franchesca Ramirez interned this summer in the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg office, assisting the advocacy and communications departments. She is a second-year student at the University of Pennsylvania.