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.

Finally, some good news!

By Andy Hoover, Communications Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

Who is holding school districts and police departments accountable?

By Harold Jordan, Senior Policy Advocate, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Surveillance video showed an interaction between a Woodland Hills High School student and school resource officer Steve Shaulis. Photo via WESA.

Controversy continues to swirl over a series of violent incidents that have occurred in the Woodland Hills School District, just outside Pittsburgh. These incidents involve allegations of violence directed against students by the school’s principal and by school-based law enforcement officials. Students have been injured. In one recent case, one of these law enforcement officials allegedly punched a student in the face and nearly knocked the student’s tooth out. An incident last year led to disciplinary action against the principal, but the principal remains at the school and was even hired as the school’s varsity football coach last month.

These incidents and the responses of administrators and the justice system so far raise fundamental questions about the role of police in our schools. They provide a textbook example of what is wrong with how many districts use police: lack of accountability for the actions of police; inappropriate use of force; failure to respect (and protect) the rights of students; and proposed solutions that may make matters worse.

Woodland Hills’ school-based law enforcement officials are known as “school resource officers” or SROs. These are sworn police officers on loan from a neighboring law enforcement agency as part of a contract between the district and the police department. But who is in control when SROs patrol the hallways? What do the school’s administrators do to protect students from harmful contact with local police? What responsibility does the school administration have when things go wrong between police and students, especially when there is unnecessary physical harm?

Often when controversies arise, police say, Don’t blame us. We’re here because the school asked us to be here. Educators say, We cannot control what police do in our school — that’s a law enforcement matter.

Who is holding districts and police departments accountable? In Woodland Hills, the officer has not been held accountable nor has the Allegheny County District Attorney, Stephen A. Zappala, prosecuted the assault. Last week community members held a protest. “We have some grave concerns about the way justice is carried out, which is why we are standing here today,” said the Rev. Richard Wingfield, pastor of Unity Baptist Church in Braddock, Pennsylvania.

This is a nationwide problem. The degree of collaboration between police and school systems has increased in the past two decades, with more districts placing police in schools on a full-time basis rather than calling them in during genuine emergencies where there is a threat to the well-being of the school community.

The experience of other districts using SROs has been that these officers sometimes engage in searches and interrogations an outside law enforcement officer would not be permitted to conduct without a warrant signed by a judge. Many districts are unsure about when these officers may have access to student records. And districts typically fail to demand that officers not carry or use potentially harmful weapons when dealing with ordinary student conflicts — including the Taser used on a student in a recent incident.

A “solution” being considered by the district is to equip SROs with body cameras. Such a measure would provide no real protections to students but would increase the surveillance of students by police. That would likely lead to more students being criminalized. In the words of one of my ACLU colleagues, “Body cameras present a real threat to students’ privacy and contribute to the creation of an environment in schools of pervasive surveillance…More likely than not, body camera footage is just going to be whipped out left and right for the enforcement of petty rules and disciplinary disturbances.”

Moreover, these arrangements between police and school districts undermine other discipline reform efforts of the district aimed at reducing out-of-school suspensions. Woodland Hills has long had one of the highest suspension rates in the state, especially for black students and black students with disabilities. In recent years, Woodland Hills has undertaken some efforts to reduce suspensions and improve school climate, with the support of AASA — The School Superintendents Association and the Children’s Defense Fund. And like me, district leaders participated in the Obama White House’s “Rethink Discipline” Summit in July of 2015.

But placing police in schools under these arrangements undermines those reform efforts. It has created Woodland Hills’ own version of “whack-a-mole”; police contact increases while the district claims to reform suspension policies.

The Woodland Hills School District has a choice. SRO arrangements are not mandated by law but are based on a contract between local law enforcement and the district. It can refuse to contract with local police, instead committing resources to student support services, or it can place stiff restrictions on police activities and the weapons they are permitted to carry in schools.

In Woodland Hills, the school district and police have become an unholy and unaccountable alliance. The district’s responsibility should be first and foremost to care for the well-being of students.

Read more about schools and the justice system at


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

Criminal defense lawyer Larry Krasner is the Democratic nominee for Philadelphia district attorney. Photo from Slate.

  • Slate: “Progressives believe Larry Krasner can help fix mass incarceration and hold police accountable. That may be too optimistic.”

“If Krasner wins in November as expected, his next challenge will be tougher than the race itself. Many of the city’s cops and prosecutors despise him, which will make it harder for Krasner to live up to his supporters’ exceedingly high expectations. Ultimately, it’s judges who decide whether to set cash bail, even if it isn’t sought by prosecutors. If Krasner’s deep-pocketed backers had spread a bit of their money down ballot, maybe he would have had a little bit more help from the bench.”

  • ACLU-PA: “Racial Analysis Suggests Philly Police Still Stop Pedestrians Based on Race”

“‘We recognize that the city, under the leadership of Mayor Kenney and Commissioner Ross, has shown improvement, as stops have decreased and legal justification for those stops has increased,’ said Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. ‘But improvement is not the goal. The goal is to treat people fairly and to respect people’s constitutional rights. This newest report suggests that some people in Philadelphia are still facing unfair treatment because of their race.’” More from ACLU-PA: “Expert Report Shows Continuing Racial Disparities in Philadelphia Police Department Stops and Frisks”

  • Star-Tribune: “High court has curbed life-without-parole for juveniles, but state case may open new door”

“Notwithstanding these decisions, the Minnesota Supreme Court filed an opinion last week upholding Ali’s sentences of three consecutive life terms. In an opinion authored by the newly elected Justice Natalie Hudson, the Minnesota court decided that Miller and Montgomery apply only to single sentences of life without parole, refusing to extend the principles articulated in Miller and Montgomery to consecutive sentences that have the same effect.”

  • Wired: “Zuckerberg-Backed Data Trove Exposes the Injustice of Criminal Justice”

“Measures for Justice launches today with deep data dives on more than 300 county court systems in Washington, Utah, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida, with plans to expand to 20 states by 2020. It pulls together the data that has traditionally remained hidden in ancient databases and endless Excel spreadsheets. Even with just six states included, the comprehensiveness of the platform surpasses anything similar that currently exists. Measures for Justice compiles granular data for 32 different metrics that indicate how equitable a given county’s justice system might be. The portal shows, for instance, how many people within a county plead guilty without a lawyer present, how many non-violent misdemeanor offenders the courts sentence to jail time, and how many people are in jail because they failed to pay bail of less than $500. It offers insight into re-conviction rates and never-prosecuted cases. Users can compare counties or filter information based on how certain measures impact people of different races or income levels. And the site organizes all of it into easily digestible data visualizations.”

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.

Is “tough-on-crime” on its way out?

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Democratic voters in Centre County opted not to nominate District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller for another term. Photo via Centre Daily Times.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum last week ordering federal prosecutors to “enforce the law fairly and consistently” — which meant doling out harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug crimes. Doing so, Sessions wrote, would ensure that prosecutors “meet the high standards required of the Department of Justice for charging and sentencing.”

It would also, according to Rand Paul among others, ruin lives without much of an upside.

One could be excused for feeling some outrage in response to Sessions’ memorandum — a sense that “tough-on-crime” policies are making their way back into accepted public policy despite reams of data indicating they don’t work.

Closer to home, however, there were reasons to believe “tough-on-crime” is on its way out.

In Philadelphia County, District Attorney Seth Williams had been accused of taking bribes, of reneging on promises, and of pushing hard for tough-on-crime policies that few had predicted he’d embrace when he ran on a supposedly progressive platform in 2009. Williams did not run for reelectionthis week — the predictable result of an federal indictment targeting Williams on bribery charges.

On Tuesday, Larry Krasner prevailed in Philadelphia’s district attorney primary. Krasner has never served as a prosecutor before — an asset at a time when prosecutors are being blamed for helping to astronomically increase incarceration rates. He has also represented a range of civil rights and social justice activists, including Black Lives Matter, Occupy Philadelphia, and protesters at the 2000 Republican National Convention and the 2016 Democratic National Convention. As a candidate who ran on a progressive agenda, who has a history of standing up for civil rights, and who promised to reroute drug offenders out of the criminal justice system, Krasner is a welcome change from Williams. Krasner proved that candidates can run on what we’ve termed “smart justice” and win.

Tuesday’s primary election in Centre County went similarly. There, in a race to be the lead prosecutor in a county that includes State College, University Park, and the county seat of Bellefonte, incumbent Stacy Parks Millers sought the Democratic nomination for district attorney. Days earlier, Parks had announced charges against 18 people allegedly responsible for the death of a Penn State University fraternity brother. Parks received almost universally positive media attention in the wake those charges — a welcome contribution to any campaign.

But Centre County residents knew something that most national news outlets didn’t mention: In addition to being a tough-on-crime prosecutor, Parks had a troubling past. Slate helpfully summarized parts of that past this week. Among other misdeeds, Parks “crossed ethical and possibly legal lines by doing things like faking a Facebook account to catfish defendants, texting a judge during a trial, and ordering a staffer to forge a judge’s signature,” Slate’s Jessica Pishko wrote.

Parks lost her bid Tuesday to again recapture the Democratic nomination to Bernie Cantorna — a candidate who ran a campaign based on “smart on crime” policies, fairness, transparency, and equal protection.

ACLU-PA does not endorse candidates for office. We are, however, for smart justice policies that will create a 21st century criminal justice system. The old ways are failed ideas that sent the national incarceration rate skyrocketing in the latter decades of the 20th century.

In at least two Pennsylvania counties, it appears “tough-on-crime” is on its way out.

Let’s hope those counties carry out smart sentencing policies — and that fair and consistent policies will soon show Sessions that his retrograde tough-on-crime policies should be on their way out, too.


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

Posters welcome attendees — some of them undocumented — to a church in South Philadelphia. Photo from

  • “The Undocumented: Since the election of Donald Trump as president, anxiety has risen within the community of those living in the United States without settled immigration status. Here are some of the human stories behind the policies and the fears.”

“Undocumented parents grapple with the possibility of being separated from their U.S.-born children, who are American citizens. Their children struggle to understand their place in this country. Young people who crossed the border as children and are living in Philadelphia under the protection of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are unsure what will become of the Obama-era policy that allows them to work and study here. Many are taking public transportation for fear of being pulled over in cars, detained, and possibly deported. Others have stopped going out at night, avoiding unnecessary encounters with authorities. A few families have reportedly left the country. Yet, many highlighted what they consider a silver lining in the growing frenzy: More undocumented immigrants have engaged in community organizing, increasingly interested in educating themselves about their rights here.”

  • Post-Gazette: “Crowd protests DA’s handling of Woodland Hills investigation”

“A crowd of protesters on Friday called on Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. to recuse himself from investigating an alleged case of abuse in the Woodland Hills School District, saying they want state Attorney General Josh Shapiro to take it over. The Alliance for Police Accountability held the rally at which about 60 people also called on Mr. Zappala to drop the charges against three students who claim they were abused at the hands of a Woodland Hills principal and school resource officer. ‘This is an iceberg,’ said Summer Lee, a Swissvale resident and an alumna of Woodland Hills High School who was among those chanting and waving signs outside the Allegheny County Courthouse. ‘That means there’s more underneath.’” Related from TribLive: Woodland Hills board hires PR firm for $350 per hour. Commentary from Braddock mayor John Fetterman on Twitter: “PR Tip #1: School personnel should avoid telling students ‘I’m gonna knock your f’ing teeth down your throat.’”

“Krasner, of the seven Democratic candidates for this office, was the scariest. He deliberately traveled with those who attack the police, who challenge the idea that drugs laws are necessary, who think that the death penalty should be reserved only for the innocent victims of crime and not the perpetrators, and who think the Constitution is, as a great judge once argued it was not, a suicide pact. That, in fact, is what I think Philadelphians did on primary night: They killed the good, decent part of the civic society that believes in accountability for the guilty and justice for the aggrieved. Perhaps it’s wrong to blame all of Philadelphia for what happened, because only a small percent actually ventured out to slit our collective throats with their votes, but the result is the same: We are doomed.”

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.