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.

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.

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.

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

By Midge Carter, ACLU-PA Criminal Justice Intern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN OTHER NEWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solitary Confinement Since 1973 – That’s 44 Years

By Matt Stroud and Midge Carter, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Hell is a “restricted housing” cell within Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections. Photo via Flickr user jmiller291.

Daniel Delker is a Pennsylvania prisoner who has been in solitary confinement since 1973. That’s 44 years.

It’s likely that you’re aware, at least on some conceptual level, of what solitary confinement is — that it’s a punishment, often referred to as “the hole,” restricting a prisoner to a cell for nearly 24 hours per day, with rare opportunities to leave the cell for showering and exercise. In Pennsylvania, they call it the “Restricted Housing Unit.”

It’s also likely that you have some idea of what the effects of such an isolated punishment might entail. Maybe you read Atul Gawande’s 2009 New Yorkerpiece “Hellhole” about the reasons why solitary confinement should be considered psychological torture. Or maybe you read The Washington Post’s July 15 editorialcalling out the federal Bureau of Prisons for continuing to use solitary confinement even though its leaders know solitary confinement equals torture.

But if you’re like us, the idea that someone might find themselves in such a circumstance for 44 years — for longer than Beyoncé and Leonardo DiCaprio have been alive — is mind-boggling. Particularly in Pennsylvania, where the commonwealth’s corrections secretary is lauded, sometimes in high-profile outlets, as a reformer.

What surprised us even further when we started looking into Delker’s case was that he’s one of dozens of people confined similarly — on something called the “RRL,” or the “Restricted Release List” — within Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections. Spelled out in the prison system’s DC-ADM 802 procedures manual, the RRL is a group of prisoners held in solitary confinement indefinitely. They don’t know when they’ll be released into general population — and neither does anyone working for DOC.

Recently, ACLU-PA — with the help of spring 2017 Criminal Justice Intern Morgan Everett — came out on the winning end of a months-long public records skirmish with DOC about access to this list. The list itself contains names of RRL prisoners, as well as reasons why those prisoners were placed onto the list in the first place. After DOC denied our initial request to provide the list, we appealed to the Office of Open Records, which eventually came to a compromise decision: that DOC could provide us with names of people on the RRL, but redact the reasons why they were on the list.

Fair enough. To its credit, DOC actually sent us the redacted list and didn’t force us to sue. We’ve since sent surveys to each and every one of the 100 people on that list — 100 people locked up indefinitely in solitary confinement — to get the information DOC withheld, and more: We wanted to find out how long they’ve been locked up, what procedures were individually set up for being released from the RRL, what kinds of conversations they’ve had with counselors during their stay in isolation, and whether they’ve had any interactions with mental health professionals, among other things.

We’ve learned a lot so far. Decades in solitary confinement is not unusual among people on the list, for one, and there’s already been an RRL death since we received the list. About three-quarters of the prisoners on the RRL have responded to us — and we’re learning more with each response we receive. But what we still don’t know is why such a list needs to exist at all.

Atul Gawande said it in “Hellhole.” The Washington Post said it in its editorial a couple weeks back. Countless organizations have spelled it out over, and over, andover again: Solitary confinement is torture. It’s unfair. It’s a drain on resources. And it doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help those who serve sentences in solitary confinement and are then released onto the streets. And it certainly doesn’t help those who have been locked up for 44 years.

The idea that Pennsylvania continues to confine its prisoners in isolation is baffling enough. (More than 2,200 Pennsylvania prisoners — about four percent of the state’s prison population — are confined to solitary.)

The idea that it keeps some of these prisoners in a secluded limbo for decades on end is beyond comprehension.

It’s indefensible.

Let’s hope DOC leaders wake up to that reality soon.

EXCERPTS

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

Debtor’s prisons still exist; Pennsylvania residents are still being jailed for the inability to pay fines. Photo from The Legal Intelligencer.

  • Andrew Christy, ACLU-PA Independence Foundation Fellow, writing in The Legal Intelligencer: “Thousands Jailed in Pa.’s Modern Debtors’ Prisons”

“My investigation of court collections ­practices suggests that many judges on both the courts of common pleas and the ­magisterial district courts fundamentally misunderstand what constitutes a defendant’s ability to pay, and thus what constitutes a willful act justifying a finding of contempt. If a defendant is unable to pay, then that defendant by definition lacks the ability to pay, the failure was not ­willful, and there can be no finding of contempt and incarceration…. Nevertheless, these practices continue to be widespread, as was recently documented by the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness in its report ‘Ending Debtors’ Prisons in Pennsylvania,’ to which the ACLU contributed.”

  • CityLab: “Attorney General’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Orders Are ‘Irrelevant’ in Philadelphia”

“Civil asset forfeiture remains a problem, however. For one, it’s still legit for cops to take your property if they suspect it’s tied to a crime, and the victims of those takings still have no right to a lawyer to get it back. Moreover, the profit incentive for law enforcement officials to pursue seizing people’s assets remains.”

  • The New Yorker: “A Veteran ICE Agent, Disillusioned with the Trump Era, Speaks Out”

“The agent, who has worked in federal immigration enforcement since the Clinton Administration, has been unsettled by the new order at ice. During the campaign, many rank-and-file agents publicly cheered Trump’s pledge to deport more immigrants, and, since Inauguration Day, the Administration has explicitly encouraged them to pursue the undocumented as aggressively as possible. ‘We’re going to get sued,’ the agent told me at one point. ‘You have guys who are doing whatever they want in the field, going after whoever they want.’”

  • Times-Union: “Albany County inmate’s death ‘shocks the conscience'”

“The criticism wasn’t an anomaly for Correctional Medical Care, a Pennsylvania-based private company. A month after Cannon’s death in August 2014 — but long before his case was investigated — the office of New York’s attorney general reached an agreement with the company that allowed it to remain in business in New York with monitoring through May 2018. The company paid a $200,000 penalty and agreed to improve staffing levels and training practices.”

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

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


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

“This place would not pass any health codes”

By Emilia Beuger , ACLU-PA Justice Intern

Are conditions in Pennsylvania’s prisons worse than those run by private prison companies? Photo via A.R.M.E.D.

Prisoners don’t get a lot of meaningful attention. Sure, some reality television shows claim to show “life on the inside” while occasional documentaries bring attention to prison conditions. But, for the most part, prisons serve their basic function — that of regulating prisoners’ “movements, activity, and effectiveness,” as Foucault put it, and of separating them from society. Federal civil lawsuits are filed just about every day by Pennsylvania prisoners who claim to have their rights violated behind bars, but it’s not likely you’ll hear anything about them. Prisoners are a concealed population; to most, they may as well not exist.

Which is why it’s been interesting to follow along as conditions within Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections have received attention recently. Pennsylvania’s prisons are allegedly “dirty,” and “not livable.” The treatment that prisoners receive from guards borders on “harassment.” Did something change just recently? Did a major policy shift negatively affect prison conditions for Pennsylvania’s 51,000-odd residential prisoners causing them to speak out? Nope. Turns out, all it took was a view from the outside.

Some background: On June 12, 2017, 269 Vermont prisoners were transferred from Michigan’s North Lake Correctional Facility to SCI Camp Hill — Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution and processing center, near Harrisburg. The Vermont prisoners had been transferred out-of-state due to overcrowding.

Such transfers occur through the Interstate Corrections Compact. Not every state in the country is a member, but most are. Transfers occur mainly due to overcrowding and security issues, and these transfers tend to benefit private prison companies such as Florida-based GEO Group, and the Utah-based Management and Training Corporation. Another private prison contractor, Tennessee-based CoreCivic, housed some 9,500 California prisoners in three states after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a 2006 state of emergency in Golden State prisons.

But sometimes private prison companies decide they’d rather not bother. That’s what happened in Michigan. GEO Group owns the North Lake Correctional Facility, which was designed to hold nearly 1,800 prisoners. Vermont’s 269 prisoners were the only people inhabiting that facility, so in December 2016, GEO’s executives decided those prisoners weren’t worth the trouble. Vermont’s contract was not renewed.

That turned out to be good financial news for Pennsylvania’s DOC. If GEO Group didn’t want Vermont’s prisoners, Pennsylvania would take them. A three-year agreement was finalized on May 1, 2017, to allow a maximum of 400 Vermont prisoners to be shuttled and dropped into either SCI Camp Hill or SCI Graterford.Vermont would pay $72 per day, per prisoner. Secretary, John E. Wetzel touted the deal to Fox43, noting that Pennsylvania had approximately 5,000 empty beds across the state. “Vermont is looking for beds at the same time we have available beds, so it works out for both states,” he said.

That was more than a little misleading, though. If you look at Pennsylvania’s current monthly population report, sure, it looks like there’s an overall excess of beds statewide. But SCI Graterford, located about 30 miles northwest of Center City Philadelphia, is not only the largest prison in the commonwealth, it’s also one of the most crowded — well over capacity, holding about 110 percent of the number of prisoners it was designed to hold. Same goes for SCI Camp Hill: It’s the commonwealth’s second largest prison, and it’s at more than 105 percent capacity.

Unsurprisingly, the Vermont prisoners — who had the run of a Michigan facility that held only a fraction of the prisoners it was designed to hold — have begun complaining about the conditions at SCI Camp Hill and SCI Graterford. They have expressed concern about “extremely short showers once per day, dirty facilities, only being issued one pair of clothing, and constant yelling and ‘harassment’ from prison guards,” according to the Burlington Free Press. One prisoner recalled being told that “meals here are a privilege not a right.” The prisoners also complained about not having access to a library containing Vermont’s legal code, which is a constitutional right in that state.

Suzi Wizowaty, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, told the Burlington Free Press that Pennsylvania’s DOC clearly “wasn’t ready for us.”

“This place would not pass any health codes,” she went on. “[It’s] really not livable.”

The Vermont inmates may have had access to an unusual amount of space in Michigan, but they were incarcerated, and under the purview of GEO Group — a company whose privately-operated prisons have faced no shortage of condemnation related to conditions and alleged prisoner abuse.

Prisoners are a concealed population, yes. And, to most, they may as well not exist. But the fact that Pennsylvania’s prisons apparently fail to match up to GEO Group’s track record for prison conditions should concern everyone — whether they make it a habit to follow prison news or not.

Maybe this view from Vermont will grant Pennsylvania’s prisoners more of the meaningful attention they deserve.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal Justice news deserving of an in-depth look)

The Third Circuit ruled last week that recording police in public is a First Amendment right. Photo via Campaign Zero.

  • ACLU of Pennsylvania, via Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney: “One of the Nation’s Only Judges to Rule Against Right to Record Police Just Got Overturned”

“On July 7, the Third Circuit reversed that ruling, concluding that Mr. Fields and Ms. Geraci’s First Amendment rights had been violated. The court explained that, because the First Amendment plainly protects the right to possess and distribute photos and videos, it must also protect the act of making those photos and videos. But even more importantly, the court explained, the First Amendment protects the right to gather information about public officials, including police officers. Without a constitutional right to collect and disseminate information about the government, the people would be left in the dark, unable to make informed decisions and participate effectively in the democratic process.” Also check out approving nods from Post-GazettePennLive, and Times-Tribune, and a Facebook Live episode with Molly Tack-Hooper and noted beardsman Ben Bowens.

“Pennsylvania Senate Bill 560 is now Act 22 of 2017, loosening rules around police use of cameras. With the legislation signed, more police departments in Pennsylvania could increase their use of cameras, including body-worn cameras. ACLU-PA staffers Elizabeth Randol, Matt Stroud, and Andy Hoover discuss the implications.”

  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Unsettled in America: Pittsburgh’s Latino community is small, diverse, growing — and anxious.”

“The large majority of Latinos are, in fact, U.S. citizens or legal residents. But tensions are high for those who aren’t, and their families, supporters and anyone concerned about a broader anti-Latino backlash. Immigrants and their advocates have marched in various demonstrations in recent months, often joining with refugees and Muslims challenging similar travel restrictions under the Trump administration. Some are calling for Pittsburgh and other local governments to have ‘sanctuary’ status and not cooperate with deportation efforts. Some local immigrants have been deported already, others have been detained and still others, like Mr. Marroquin, are awaiting hearings. Many, though, have lived with knowing their turn may be next, whether they’re farm workers in an outlying county or whether they’re suburban restaurant dish washers.”

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

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

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

“We think Pennsylvania should follow that trend”

By Midge Carter, ACLU-PA Justice Intern

Qu’eed Batts won a victory for all 514 Pennsylvania’s juvenile lifers. But the work’s not done yet. Photo via American Constitution Society.

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court handed down a ruling last week that affects how the commonwealth’s juveniles are sentenced when major crimes are committed. The ruling directly affects juvenile lifers, a segment of the prison population whose sentences have been closely scrutinized in the courts.

Roughly 2,500 individuals in the United States are serving life without parole for crimes that occurred when they were children (JLWOP) . Pennsylvania has the highest concentration of individuals serving these harsh sentences, housing 514 total — roughly one-fifth of all JWLOP inmates nationwide. Three other states — Michigan, Louisiana, and California — hold about one-fifth, combined.

The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed juvenile sentencing several times.

The decision in Roper v. Simmons in 2005 determined that the death penalty for children is unconstitutional. Juveniles have decreased culpability and increased ability to reform, the court found. SCOTUS’s 2011 decision in Graham v. Floridatook that same reasoning and banned life without parole for children involved in non-homicide cases. A year later, in Miller v. Alabama, SCOTUS decided that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a child amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and is thus prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. In 2016, SCOTUS ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller applies retroactively, meaning that juveniles sentenced before 2012 could apply for re-sentencing. It also created a standard for sentencing, arguing that life sentences should only be given to juveniles who demonstrate “irreparable corruption.”

That brings us to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruling last week — and to Qu’eed Batts.

Batts was 14 years old when he shot two teenagers, killing one. In 2007, he was sentenced to mandatory life without parole, which he appealed following Miller, with the help of his Easton, Pa.-based attorney, Philip Lauer. Batts’ appeal was answered with another life sentence, again without the chance of parole. He appealed again.

On June 26, more than ten years after his original sentencing, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

Batts’ argument relied on the language of the Miller decision, which required that life-without-parole sentences be given to only the “the rarest of juvenile offenders.” Imposing a life-without-parole sentence for a juvenile should require “competent evidence that the defendant will forever be incorrigible, without any hope for rehabilitation,” wrote Justice Christine Donohue in her opinion. In the future, prosecutors will need to “prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile offender is permanently incorrigible and thus is unable to be rehabilitated.” That didn’t happen in Batts’ case.

So what will this mean?

For Batts, it means he will be re-sentenced again. (His attorney, Lauer, told the Post-Gazette: “I’m on page 45 [of Judge Donohue’s opinion], and I can’t stop smiling.”)

For the other 514 juvenile lifers that still have active cases within Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system, it means that judges will have to consider youth at the time of the crime, in combination with their potential to change. Optimistically, this will lead to fairer, more just sentences.

“By recognizing a presumption against the sentence and placing the burden on the Commonwealth to establish permanent incorrigibility on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the Supreme Court has properly erected an exceedingly high bar for the state to overcome,” wrote Marsha Levick, Deputy Director and Chief Counsel of Juvenile Law Center, in a statement reacting to the Battsruling. “Such sentences should indeed be rare in Pennsylvania as we now move ahead.”

For Pennsylvania as a whole, the ruling means the Keystone State will come closer to following the national trend of limiting or eliminating life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. In a joint statement, the Abolitionist Law Center and the Amistad Law Project pointed out that the Batts decision falls short in a lot of ways. Indeed, 19 states and the District of Columbia have zero JLWOP cases, and 17 of those have declared JLWOP sentences illegal.

“The trend among our sister states,” wrote Justice Donohue, “is to outlaw entirely the sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders.”

We think Pennsylvania should follow that trend.

IN OTHER NEWS

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

ACLU of Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford speaks at the Beyond the Walls Healthcare and Reentry Summit, part of the 23rd Annual AIDS Education Month on June 28, 2017 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Photo via Holly Clark/Philadelphia FIGHT.

“At a moment where individuals, advocates and elected officials from across the political spectrum are interested in reducing incarceration, there are concrete things to do. Here are a few ideas: Ending stop and frisk and other police practices that disproportionately channel poor people and people of color into the city’s jails. Holding officers involved in the shooting deaths of our brothers and sisters fully accountable. Eliminating the unjust pressure on defendants to accept plea bargains. Addressing overcrowding and other human rights abuses by keeping people at home while they await trial. Increasing access to alternatives to incarceration that address harm, violence, and loss in a way that will lead to real transformation and healing. Supporting the ACLU’s effort to reduce the jail and prison population by 50 percent over the next several years. We need sentencing reform, bail reform, parole reform and prosecutorial reform.”

“Every Circuit Court of Appeals to address this issue (First, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh) has held that there is a First Amendment right to record police activity in public…. Today we join this growing consensus. Simply put, the First Amendment protects the act of photographing, filming, or otherwise recording police officers conducting their official duties in public.”

  • The Intercept: “How Sanctuary Cities Can Protect Undocumented Immigrants From ICE Data Mining”

“One key conduit of information from local police to ICE is through joint federal-local task forces intended to combat crime or terrorism. Police officers in each of the listed ‘sanctuary cities’ that choose to participate are assigned to the local Joint Terrorism Task Force. Though the JTTFs are run by regional offices of the FBI, agents from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations are assigned to all 104 such task forces across the country, and ICE’s own website boasts that the agency ‘is the largest federal contributor to the JTTF.’ Furthermore, police in several cities (Los Angeles, Oakland, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco) have assigned other officers to participate as deputized federal agents in task forces run by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations unit. The task forces are intended to focus on gun violence, gang crimes, and organized crime. According to ICE’s own documentation, local police officers who are deputized as federal agents cannot enforce immigration law. However, HSI receives access to local case files through these task forces, and the task force agreements do not bar HSI agents from detaining people for immigration violations during their joint operations with local police. Nor do the agreements place restrictions on ICE’s access to data maintained by local police or other municipal agencies.”

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

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

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

We’ve embarked on an ambitious project

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN OTHER NEWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, some good news!

By Andy Hoover, Communications Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN OTHER NEWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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