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.