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.

It’s expensive, does not reduce crime, and destroys due process. So why pass it?

By Elizabeth Randol, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman resorted to fear mongering to push for a mandatory sentencing bill to pass the state Senate. Screenshot via PA Senate.

On May 18, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a joint hearing to consider House Bill 741, a proposal to reinstate mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania. Clocking in at five hours, the hearing included testimony from 17 people affiliated with 14 organizations, agencies, and institutions, representing an array of expertise and insights.

At the hearing, I spoke on behalf of ACLU-PA, which has long opposed mandatory minimum sentences. From our perspective, the decision to oppose HB 741 was clear cut.

Not only are mandatories ineffective, they have done exactly the opposite of their intended purpose: They decrease certainty in sentencing, have no deterrent effect on criminal behavior, and have no causal relationship to reductions in crime. They alsoincrease the likelihood of recidivism, and directly contribute to mass incarceration while costing taxpayers a lot of hard-earned cash: Reinstating mandatory minimums in Pennsylvania would likely cost $20 million in its first year.

Those reasons don’t begin to touch due process principles. Historically, our adversarial system entrusts discretionary power to judges who function as the neutral arbiter between two opposing sides, weighing the arguments and considering the facts of each individual case before rendering a decision. Our system assigns the job of judging to judges. But because mandatories are tied to specific crimes, control over mandatory sentencing decisions shifts from the judges (the neutral arbiters) to the prosecutors (one of the adversaries) who have singular and unreviewable authority to decide what charges to pursue.

But central to ACLU-PA’s opposition to mandatory minimums is their obvious contribution to racial injustice. Study after study exposes patterns of uneven and unequal application of mandatory sentences, disproportionately imposed on low income people of color. Mandatory sentencing schemes exacerbate and compound existing racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

Most of us who testified at last week’s hearing offered some combination of these arguments — that mandatory minimums are ineffective and costly; that they exacerbate racial disparities; and that they run roughshod over civil liberties. But running counter to the steady flow of evidence-based, rational arguments were the insistent protestations of HB 741’s proponents. A video recording of the hearing can be found here.

In a raised voice, around the 167 minute mark, Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman made a bold appeal to fear. “Kids are gonna be raped,” Stedman said, because we’ve reduced mandatory sentences. He went on: “I don’t know who it’s gonna be, but it’s gonna happen. And it’s gonna happen more than once.”

During an exchange with Carnegie Mellon University professor Al Blumstein, a giant in the field of criminal justice, Senator Randy Vulakovich pressed him on why there’s no justice for victims. Unconvinced by Prof. Blumstein’s response, he then puzzled around the 96 min mark over why our system doesn’t allow victims to determine the punishment for their perpetrators.

Another senator faced down Dr. Bret Bucklen, the director of research and statistics at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. After establishing that Dr. Bucklen “looks at numbers most of the time” and “hasn’t sat with anyone whose son has succumbed to heroin addiction” as part of his job, the senator declared that he was “offended by his testimony” because it was inappropriate to “keep throwin’ numbers” around when human lives are at stake. Invoking “what the public wants and what the people are demanding” in terms of justice, the senator transformed the will of the people into a torch-wielding tyranny. And in a crescendoed finale, he drew a line in the sand and pitted people vs. facts, refusing to “take numbers over human turmoil and suffering.”

Earlier this year, HB 741 was voted out of the House — a first step toward making this indefensible bill into law. The May 18 joint hearing was the next step in that process. If questions and statements to the committee are any indication, Pennsylvania may well be on its way to reinstating policies that are blatantly regressive, that clearly run counter to all available evidence, and that will exact a steep price from Pennsylvanians.

House Bill 741 is an invitation to regress — a way to re-adopt outdated and ineffective “public safety” measures that disproportionately damage communities of color, and concentrate unreviewable power in the hands of prosecutors.

Please call your senators and urge them to vote no on HB 741.


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

Room with a view — of the execution chamber at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview, just northeast of State College, Pa. Photo from the Pa. Department of Corrections via

  • “What will happen to Pennsylvania’s death penalty?”

“Pennsylvania isn’t the only state in limbo over the death penalty, as debate has raged over the probability of an innocent person being executed and the propriety of lethal injection as an execution method. Capital punishment is authorized in 31 states, but only seven have carried out executions — 31 of them — since the start of 2016, according to Amber Widgery, a capital punishment policy specialists at the National Conference of State Legislatures. ‘There are people in the world who think that no one innocent has ever been executed, and others who think it happens all the time,’ Widgery said. There are also some who don’t believe you have to constitutionally execute a criminal painlessly, she said, and others who classify lethal injection as cruel and unusual.”

  • The Baffler: “How Larry Krasner’s Victory Sounded from the DJ Booth: Finally, Philadelphia has a decarceration DA candidate, even in Jeff Sessions’s America”

“It was so fucking beautiful. We wanted this. We needed this. I heard it in every cheer, saw it every face, and felt it in every hug. The race had been looking good, but even so, we surprised ourselves. Conventional wisdom said our candidate was unelectable, but here was proof that a politics of dignity for all can win — and win big. On May 16, Krasner garnered more votes than the second and third place finishers combined, and hundreds of people turned up for his election-night party. We packed into the courtyard and community room of the John C. Anderson Apartments, one of the first LGBTQI mixed-income housing projects in the country, to celebrate a historic primary victory that should now, in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one, set the stage for general election success in November.”

  • Institute for Justice: “Grandmother Who Lost Her Home Because Her Son Sold Marijuana Wins Pennsylvania Supreme Court Case”

“‘This is one of the most important civil forfeiture decisions issued by a court and the most important ever issued in Pennsylvania,’ said Jason Leckerman, a Partner at Ballard Spahr, which handled the case. ‘The court has set forth a comprehensive constitutional framework for analyzing forfeiture claims that should substantially curb forfeiture proceedings in Pennsylvania and is likely to influence other state courts considering these issues.’” More from Reason: “Court to Grandma: You Shouldn’t Lose Your House Just Because Your Dumb Son Sold Some Weed There”

  • ACLU-PA: “My graduation from a ‘segregation academy’”

“It was otherwise a mostly good experience, both while I attended CFA and this weekend’s celebrations. Unfortunately, over the course of the weekend, I saw only one other alumnus of color. Then as now, there were folks who appeared a bit leery of me, but most were very cool. Someone at the event asked me if my experience at CFA had informed my decision to become a civil rights lawyer. The truth is that it was not just CFA but my entire experience growing up in the south. And given the current state of things in N.C and beyond, there remains a lot of work to be done.”

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.

The best accountability tool may be the smartphone in your pocket

By Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Pictured: The shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, captured by a civilian’s mobile phone camera.

Since 2013, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has been fighting to preserve ordinary people’s power to use recording technology to keep the police in check through aseries of lawsuits against the Philadelphia Police Department over the well documented pattern of PPD officers arresting or citing people who attempt to record police.

This “Copwatch” campaign — the name we’ve given to these lawsuits, filed on behalf of individuals arrested for observing or recording police action — suffered a setback in February 2016, when federal district court Judge Mark Kearney ruled that ordinary people do not have the right to record the police unless they simultaneously criticize the police.

Judge Kearney’s ruling is a major problem. And that problem needs to be addressed now perhaps more than ever before.

Recent attacks on police reform have been launched from both Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled that his Department of Justice will scale back its police reform activities, decreeingthat police accountability is henceforth the responsibility of local governments, not the federal government. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania General Assembly isn’t likely to help close the accountability gap left open by Attorney General Sessions. An alarming number of Pennsylvania legislators have been hard at work on measures to insulate law enforcement against oversight, including a bill that would effectively make police body camera footage unobtainable by anyone other than police and prosecutors.

With so many members of the legislative and executive branches working feverishly to cripple the public’s ability to hold police officers accountable for abuses, reform may have to come from the courts — and from We the People.

After filing briefs in October and January in opposition to Judge Kearney’s ruling, on Tuesday, ACLU-PA asked a panel of federal appeals court judges to step up and protect the most powerful tool that ordinary people have for holding the police accountable: the right to record the police.

Although many courts have recognized that documentation and communication about how police use their power is at the heart of what the First Amendment was designed to protect, the federal appeals court that covers Pennsylvania has yet to acknowledge that.

Over the past several years, as smartphones have become ubiquitous, timeand againwe’ve seen civilians’ photos and videos of police expose the realities of policing in an undeniably powerful way. Ordinary people’s cell phone recordings of police interactions have been a starting point for national conversations about police reform and have sparked grassroots movements seeking accountability for how — and against whom — the police use their tremendous power. And studies show that videos of police interactions can not only document abuses by law enforcement but can also deter abuses.

If allowed to stand, Judge Kearney’s ruling threatens to chill the exercise of core First Amendment freedoms, erode the supply of crucial information about policing, cut off an important societal debate, and stop police accountability movements in their tracks.

We know that protecting the public’s right to record the police plays a vital role in holding law enforcement accountable.

We hope the appeals court will embrace its vital role in safeguarding First Amendment freedoms.


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

Will Philadelphia’s next district attorney set juvenile lifer Terrance Lewis free? Photo from The Inquirer.

  • The Inquirer: “A judge called this juvenile lifer innocent, but he’s still in prison. Will Philly’s next DA let him go home?”

“But Lewis is — depending on your perspective — either an incredibly unlucky man or an extraordinarily lucky one. Unlucky to be charged with a crime he says he did not commit, to be tried as an adult in a state where life means life, to be appointed a lawyer who apparently never investigated his case. Lucky, because he keeps encountering more people who were out on the block that evening and are willing to testify that he wasn’t there. And lucky, because he is on the right side of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that found sentences like his to be illegal. Lewis is one of more than 300 juvenile lifers from Philadelphia — the largest such population in the country — being resentenced after the court banned automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in 2012, and then in 2016 ordered that the rule be applied retroactively. So far, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has taken a conservative approach to these cases, often making offers of 35 years to life. But after 19 years in prison for a crime he says he did not commit, Lewis is hoping for a different sentence: time served.”

  • ACLU-PA: “ACLU of Pennsylvania Argues for the Right to Record the Police Before Federal Appeals Court”

“With cooperating counsel, the ACLU of Pennsylvania is representing two plaintiffs who photographed police at work and who were detained as a result. Rick Fields was arrested in September 2013, after he stopped to take a photo with his iPhone of a large number of Philadelphia police officers breaking up a house party across the street. One of the officers approached him, asked if he enjoyed “taking pictures of grown men,” and ordered him to leave. After Fields refused, he was handcuffed and detained in a police van, and his phone was searched in an apparent attempt to find the recordings he had made that evening. He was charged with “obstructing the highway,” but the charge was later withdrawn. The other plaintiff is Amanda Geraci, a trained legal observer who was detained by police while she was attempting to monitor police interactions during an anti-fracking protest outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center in September 2012. When Geraci attempted to take photos of police arresting a protestor, a police officer pushed Geraci up against a pillar and pinned Geraci across her throat. Other police officers quickly surrounded Geraci and the officer to block other legal observers from witnessing or recording the incident, although not before several photos were taken by Geraci’s fellow legal observers. In February 2016, federal district court Judge Mark Kearney ruled that the plaintiffs do not have a First Amendment right to photograph the police unless they are doing so for the purpose of criticizing the police. Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, argued on behalf of the plaintiffs at today’s hearing in the appeals court. ‘Ordinary people have an important role to play in holding the government accountable, and the First Amendment is one of our main sources of power,’ said Tack-Hooper. ‘Taking photos or videos of how police use their power is part of the freedom protected by the First Amendment.’”

  • More ACLU-PA: “State Senate Bill Blocks Public Access to Police Video, Undermines Accountability”

“The Pennsylvania Senate today passed legislation to severely restrict the ability of the public to access video recorded by police cameras. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said that the bill undermines the goal of using body cameras as a means of accountability for police officers. ‘If the public cannot obtain video produced by police cameras, they shouldn’t be used at all,’ said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. ‘While body cameras may be valuable to officers in carrying out their daily duties, the idea of using these cameras came to prominence because people were demanding that police operate with transparency, fairness, and accountability.’”

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither the ACLU nor the ACLU of Pennsylvania endorse candidates.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No money for capital defense?

By Marshall Dayan, Assistant Federal Defender — Capital Habeas Unit
Western District of Pennsylvania

Photo from Flickr user M01229.

The death penalty is an unworkable and ineffective criminal justice policy, so it is no surprise that states around the country are abandoning it. In recent years, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Maryland, Connecticut, and Delaware have either repealed legislatively or struck down judicially their death penalty statutes. In Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and now Pennsylvania, governors have hit the pause button on executions. Here in Pennsylvania, Governor Wolf has indicated that he will grant a reprieve in every case in which a death warrant is signed pending the conclusion and evaluation of a state study on capital punishment.

Surprisingly, Pennsylvania has the fifth largest death row in the United States. Our state’s death row population is exceeded only by those in California, Florida, Texas, and Alabama. District attorneys prosecute dozens of capital cases annually, at an exorbitant financial cost. The Reading Eagle estimated that the death penalty has cost Pennsylvanians $816 million since 1978. That estimate is conservative, since it did not capture all of the costs involved in pursuing a sentence of death. Yet there has not been an execution of a person who did not give up his appeals in Pennsylvania since 1962, and no execution at all since 1999. Why not?

Pennsylvania is one of only two states in the nation (the other being South Dakota) in which no money is spent on capital defense for those who are too poor to afford it on their own. Rather, funding in Pennsylvania is provided on a county by county basis. Beyond providing for a single attorney, trial judges make discretionary decisions about the allocation of resources. National standards recommend and highly encourage a minimum of two lawyers and other experts, as necessary, for a capital defense team. Based upon the circumstances of each case, these might include experts in ballistics, serology, DNA, fingerprints, hair and fiber, to challenge assertions made by the prosecution about the guilt of a particular person accused of murder. These resources are crucial, since 157 death row inmates who have been convicted of murder beyond a reasonable doubt have been exonerated.

Several of those exonerations have occurred in Pennsylvania.

Most importantly, national standards strongly recommend and encourage provision of a mitigation specialist. Usually a licensed social worker, a mitigation specialist is qualified to investigate and prepare a social history of the life of each person charged with a capital offense. This information is used to create and present an individualized educational, socioeconomic, and psychological profile of someone whom a jury might have to decide should live or die. None of these resources are required in Pennsylvania, and none of them are ever provided by state funding. Elected trial judges are motivated to keep the county funding for indigent capital defense to a minimum. In many other states, including Virginia, North Carolina, and even Mississippi, these resources are provided by the state without the interference of elected judges who keep an eye on public opinion.

The real import of the failure of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to provide adequate state resources is that, beyond the exonerations, we have had more than 200 reversals of capital cases in the last 40 years. This means that the same cases are being tried repeatedly at significant costs to the taxpayers. These reversals are based on important constitutional legal grounds such as the failure to provide effective assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, or by prosecutorial misconduct prohibited by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, protections guaranteed by the United States Constitution. These are not reversals on technicalities; these are serious flaws in the system.

We can and must do better. Our best option is to follow the lead of our neighbors — West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, and abandon capital punishment. Until then, Pennsylvania must provide those charged with and/or convicted of capital crimes sufficient resources to prevent, to the greatest extent humanly possible, wrongful convictions and death sentences, and minimize, if not eradicate, the constitutional flaws that have marked capital prosecutions in our state.


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

Pennsylvania counties will take part in the Stepping Up Initiative, an initiative that aims to safely reduce the number of people with mental illness in Pa. jails. Photo from The Inquirer.

  • The Daily News: “Rendell, calling DA’s Office ‘in crisis,’ endorses Khan in Democratic primary”

“The Philadelphia District Attorney is ‘obviously in crisis,’ former Gov. Ed Rendell declared Wednesday as he endorsed former federal prosecutor Joe Khan in the Democratic primary election. Rendell, who served as the city’s district attorney from 1978 to 1985, did not mention the current office holder, District Attorney Seth Williams, while standing next to Khan in the Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall. But the federal indictment filed against Williams two weeks ago, accusing him of accepting bribes in return for official acts and of stealing money meant for the care of his elderly mother, was clearly on his mind. ‘The D.A.’s office absolutely needs someone of unquestioned integrity and someone who is an experienced prosecutor,’ Rendell said, calling the office ‘in need of a new and good district attorney.’”

  • The Inquirer: “Can Pennsylvania find a way out for thousands of mentally ill inmates languishing in county jails?”

“An interagency team is beginning to address the backlog of about 130 people who are in limbo in Philadelphia jails because they have been deemed incompetent to stand trial but are awaiting an open bed at the Norristown State Hospital. Some, typically nonviolent offenders, are now being placed in community-based treatment programs while they await trial, Herdman said. And, as part of the MacArthur collaboration, the city will soon launch an effort to divert people with behavioral-health issues picked up on low-level probation violations into community-based care, said Julie Wertheimer, chief of staff for criminal justice at the Philadelphia Managing Director’s Office. A similar program, diverting people with probation detainers to substance-abuse treatment, is already underway.”

“The officers were wearing body cameras, which are intended to add clarity to controversial moments in policing — including these types of shootings. The problem: The cameras weren’t on. Last Saturday’s shooting was at least the second this year in which body cameras worn by LAPD officers weren’t recording when they fired their guns. Since the department launched its ambitious 7,000-camera deployment in August 2015, there have been at least four shootings in which officers didn’t have their cameras on at the time, according to a Times review of LAPD statements and reports. Those cases underscore a growing predicament as more law enforcement agencies deploy body cameras. While the use of the technology has increased, so have examples in which the cameras weren’t on when they were supposed to be.”

“TASER International (NASDAQ: TASR), the global leader in connected law enforcement technologies, announced today that it is launching a new program to equip every police officer in America with a body camera and changing its name to Axon (NASDAQ: AAXN). It will also provide supporting hardware, software, data storage, training, and support to police departments free of cost for one year. ‘We are going ‘all-in’ to empower police officers to more safely and effectively do their jobs and drive important social change by making body cameras available to every officer in America,’ said Rick Smith, Founder and CEO of Axon. ‘We believe these cameras are more than just tools to protect communities and the officers who serve them. They also hold the potential to change police work as we know it, by seamlessly collecting an impartial record and reducing the need for endless paperwork. That’s why we’re giving this opportunity to every single police officer in America.’”

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.

Why tout debunked deterrence myths?

By Elizabeth Randol, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Photo via Dave on Flickr.

Pop quiz: can you name a crime that carried a mandatory minimum sentence in Pennsylvania? Can you name the minimum sentence for that crime? No? Don’t worry, you’re in good company — 66% of your fellow Pennsylvanians didn’t know the answer either. If most people can’t name a single crime or the minimum sentence it carries, then it defies reason (and established research) that mandatory minimums deter crime.

And yet this past week, district attorneys from the west to the southeast of the commonwealth touted this debunked deterrence myth in their support for HB 741, a bill that would reinstate mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania. For over two years, Pennsylvania has been without them — but not because we repealed them. Mandatory minimums were invalidated after the PA Supreme Court ruled that the process we used to impose them was unconstitutional. But supporters of this bill, including many district attorneys, want mandatory minimums back, claiming that they are an important tool in fighting crime and keeping the public safe.

What they fail to mention are Pennsylvania’s existing and exhaustive sentencing guidelinesthat already establish benchmarks for criminal sentences. In fact, HB 741’s mandatory minimums are nearly identical to sentences recommended in the guidelines. And judges sentence criminals within those guidelines 90% of the time. But legislators and district attorneys would have us imagine that without mandatory minimums, violent criminals risk being sentenced to a slap on the wrist. When the press asked about this wrist-slapping, district attorneys were unable to cite even one case that resulted in an overly lenient sentence.

But not everyone in the criminal justice community believes that mandatory minimums are an effective public safety measure. PA Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel recently argued against reinstating mandatory minimums, namely because they don’t make the public safer. They fail to deter crime or reduce recidivism, they legislate decision-making best left to judges, and, if this bill passes, they would balloon the prison population, resulting in an estimated increase of $85M annually to cover incarceration costs.

District attorneys and the legislators who support HB 741 threaten to put Pennsylvania on a collision course with reform efforts that are now standard throughout the United States. Don’t let them move Pennsylvania backwards with an ineffective, outdated, and one-size-fits-all approach to crime. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.

Please contact your state representative next week and urge them to vote NO on HB 741.

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

Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins (left) prepares to speak to Democratic members of Congress on March 30, 2017. Photo from The Daily News.

  • From The Daily News: “Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins visits Congress to push criminal justice reforms”

“Along with Jenkins, they all said they hoped to use their experiences and their platforms as athletes to make the issue a priority during a busy Congressional session. ‘We’re here to use our leverage, our voices, to make sure that our families, our communities, our kids are a priority to the people here on Capitol Hill, to this administration, to the rest of our nation,’ Jenkins told seven Democratic members of Congress during a public forum. He said he got involved in the issue after seeing the widely-publicized incidents involving police and minorities last year. He met with the Philadelphia police commissioner and community groups, joined protests during the national anthem at Eagles games — holding his fist aloft — and recently visited a state prison in Graterford, Pa. He argued that the current criminal system is costing too much money, due to the number of people sentenced to prison, and ‘creates doubt and distrust’ between police and the communities they work in.”

  • From Harold Jordan of the ACLU of Pennsylvania in The Post-Gazette: “Don’t arm school police”

“A Post-Gazette editorial (‘Arm the Officers,’ March 24) and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers executive board resolution both put forth troubling arguments that are at odds with what we know about school policing. The most immediate impact of arming school police would be felt by students, as school-based police spend the bulk of their time interacting with students in non-emergency situations. Having officers patrol the hallways with firearms sends a negative message to students. It makes many students feel that they are being treated like suspects. It can have an intimidating presence and can contribute to negative attitudes about police, in general. There is no evidence that arming school officers increases overall safety or improves relationships within school communities. Having an armed officer stationed in schools has neither prevented nor stopped ‘active shooter’ incidents. It did not at Columbine High School nor has it elsewhere. Thankfully, these tragic situations are still rare in schools.”

  • From ACLU of Pennsylvania: “Attorney General Sessions’ Interpretation of Immigration Law is ‘Extreme and Indefensible’”

“The following can be attributed to Sara Rose, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania: ‘Numerous courts have held that jails violate the Fourth Amendment when they hold people on immigration detainers, which are issued without probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. Attorney General Sessions’ statement sends the message to municipalities that they must violate their residents’ constitutional rights or lose federal funding. Such a requirement is plainly illegal under our system of government.’”

  • From The Daily News: “A death row inmate, a murder victim’s son, and a 16-year quest for justice”

“The timing for Lowenstein’s tome couldn’t be better — just as eight candidates jockey to replace disgraced Philadelphia DA Seth Williams and debate what must be done to repair the city’s deeply flawed criminal-justice regime. The fact that Williams’ lieutenants not only continue to defend Ogrod’s deeply flawed conviction but are blocking DNA tests that could prove Ogrod’s innocence or guilt is Exhibit A in that system’s indictment.”

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.

“A democratic society starts to lose its moorings when police can kill in secret”

By Andy Hoover, Communications Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Vote “NO” on House Bill 27. Photo from flickr.

Baseball fans are familiar with the phrase, “It’s just Manny being Manny.” It was the thing to say about the often eccentric behavior of Red Sox and Indians slugger Manny Ramirez. Manny disappears into the Green Monster — Fenway Park’s famous left field wall — to drink Gatorade and talk on the phone. Manny high fives a fan while making a catch against the fence and then throws back to the infield for a double play. Manny refuses to talk with reporters all through spring training but breaks his silence to talk about the grill he sold on Ebay.

In Pennsylvania government, we have our own version of “Manny being Manny,” but it isn’t nearly as amusing. It’s the House being the House. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is the place where ways to compound mass incarceration and police brutality go to live.

This week alone, the House passed legislation to forfeit bail money to cover fines and restitution, even if the depositor is not the defendant. Your mom or your buddy bails you out, and now they’re paying your fines, too, if this bill becomes law.

The House Judiciary Committee passed a bill to reinstate mandatory minimum sentencing, which has been on ice for two years thanks to federal and state court rulings, despite growing evidence that mandatories have no impact on public safety and are discriminatory.

And on Monday, the House passed a bill to make it a crime for public officials to identify cops who kill, a bill we’ve told you about before.

It’s the House being the House.

And lest anyone thinks in these hyper partisan times that this is a product of a Republican majority, Democrats vote for this stuff, too. Like this one and this one and this one.

We are in a fierce struggle now to stop House Bill 27, the police secrecy bill, in order to protect transparency and accountability in policing. Governor Wolf agrees with us that hiding the identity of public employees who seriously injure or kill someone is no way to run a transparent government. He vetoed this bill last year. A handful of state senators agreed with us last session, but we need more this time.

The best thing you can do right now to stop the police secrecy bill is call your state senator and tell them to vote “no” on HB 27. You can find your state senator’s contact information with our “find your legislator” tool. And you can find more information about HB 27 on our website.

The message here is simple: Police officers are public employees to whom we give a great deal of power. With that power comes the responsibility to be transparent and accountable to the public.

A democratic society starts to lose its moorings when police can kill in secret.

And frankly, local officials already have the power to hide an officer’s identity if they think it’s necessary for safety reasons. This is a decision to be made at the local level, based on circumstances in the community, not by politicians in Harrisburg.

Your state senator needs to get the message: Vote “NO” on House Bill 27.


Philadelphia DA Seth Williams was indicted Tuesday on 23 counts of corruption and bribery-related charges. Photo from The Inquirer.

  • From Philadelphia Magazine: “Here’s What’s Behind the Sharp Left Turn in Philly’s District Attorney Race”

“Unlike most local elections, the Democratic primary for district attorney is a real, honest-to-goodness fight. There is no clear front-runner in the seven-person race. Some candidates have more advantages than others, though. Untermeyer is a self-funded millionaire. Krasner might have that super PAC waiting in the wings. Because so few Philadelphians typically vote in off-year elections — only 105,000 of the city’s 1.2 million voting-age citizens turned out in the last competitive Democratic primary for DA — factors like race and party endorsements could also make a difference. According to an analysis of local elections, whites and blacks usually cast ballots for candidates of their own race. El-Shabazz is the only black candidate in a city that’s 44 percent black in a year in which many African-Americans are worried about President Trump’s law-and-order agenda. Negrin is the only Latino at a time when many Hispanics have those same fears. Khan’s father is Pakistani, but the South Asian-American community here is comparatively small; the rest of the Democrats are white. Will the vote split along racial lines, or will a broad coalition usher someone into office, à la the 2007 and 2015 mayoral elections?”

“The indictment recaps multiple text-message exchanges between [Mohammad N.] Ali and Williams in the days and weeks that followed; Williams expresses appreciation for the multiple gifts Ali bestowed upon him, and ultimately offers to get personally involved with Ali’s friend’s case. The conversations begin Feb. 8, 2012: Ali: “the guy pleaded guilty, he will take any punishment but he just doesn’t wanna do jail! . . . If you can do anything for him it would be very appreciative (as long as you have no problem with it).” Williams: “I will look into it.” Shortly thereafter, the indictment shows that Williams texted one word to Ali: “April?” Authorities allege that was in reference to another trip to Punta Cana that Ali was expected to pay for.Williams: “I am merely a thankful beggar and don’t want to overstep my bounds in asking … but we will gladly go.” On Feb. 24, Williams and Ali had another text conversation — this one about a $3,212 couch that Ali planned to buy for the district attorney. Ali attached a photo of the couch to the text thread. Ali:“Is that it?” Williams: “That is the exact one … but the special order color Chocolate.”

“The Department of Homeland Security Monday issued its first ‘Declined Detainer Requests’ list of jurisdictions where local law enforcement officials allegedly have refused to adequately help with federal detention and deportation operations. The public notice was ordered by President Trump in January. The feds made 3,083 requests between January 28-February 3 and were ‘declined’ help in 216 incidents, most of which occurred in Travis County, Texas. HUFFINGTON POST Related: Here’s the official notice. DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY More: Hey, LA, you made the list. LOS ANGELES TIMES Still more: So did you, Hennepin County, Minnesota. MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE

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.

Hiding cops who kill

In response to protests in Pennsylvania and around the country to hold police accountable, Pennsylvania’s state legislature has responded by trying to expand the role of secrecy in government. To vote NO on House Bill 27, click this link. Photo via Thomas Hawk.

By Andy Hoover, Communications Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

A social justice movement knows that it is having an impact when it faces backlash. And so it is with the movement for black lives and the response it’s getting from the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

As people from communities around the state and around the country have called for fairer treatment from the police and more transparency in how police operate, our state legislature is maneuvering to use state law to withhold as much information as possible from the public.

Next week, the state House of Representatives is prepared to vote on legislation to hide the identities of police officers who kill or seriously injure someone. Public officials could be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor for violating the gag order.

Ostensibly, this public blackout would last 30 days. But the bill also prohibits releasing an officer’s name if doing so “can reasonably be expected to create a risk of harm to the person or property” of the officer or his family. In practice, the gag order will go on indefinitely. What public official would risk it otherwise, especially with the threat of criminal charges?

The supporters argue “safety,” as they always do when they want to undermine civil liberties. And yet they cannot point to a single documented case in which the safety of an officer who used force was under credible threat of harm.

In November, Governor Wolf vetoed a similar bill, and in his veto statement, he said, “Government works best when trust and openness exist between citizens and their government. I cannot agree to sign this bill, because it will enshrine into law a policy to withhold important information from the public.”

We agree. Police officers are public employees with extraordinary powers. They have the power to deprive people of their liberty and even to deprive people of their lives. With that power comes the expectation that they will operate with openness for the public to see.

We are not alone in that opinion. Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey has said that police officers cannot shoot someone and have an expectation to remain anonymous. Open government advocate Terry Mutchler, the former head of the Office of Open Records, told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “This type of legislation, while very well intended, which I understand coming from a long family of cops, collides with open government. Government must be open and transparent no matter how difficult that may seem at times.”

In urging Wolf to veto last year, state Representative Jordan Harris, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, wrote, “(T)his bill would cast a cloak of secrecy around police officers at a time when the public most demands information. This is not how you rebuild community-police relationships.”

Last year, the bill even received national attention, including from David Simon, creator of “The Wire.”

And now the bill is back. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has created an action for you to contact your state representative to tell them to vote NO on House Bill 27. The action is available at this link.

There is a lot of gloomy talk these days about where we are headed as a country. This bill and others like it that hide information about police practices from the public create an environment in which police are hidden and unaccountable. Be assured that the ACLU of Pennsylvania will do whatever is necessary to stop it.


What happens when cops lie? Photo via Vice.

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

  • From Vice: “Why Cops Don’t Get Charged with Crimes When They Lie”

“According to Professor Yaroshefsky, the DA’s implicit concession that its office fails to search out evidence favorable to defendants in police files could leave it vulnerable to a federal lawsuit down the line. But Kline, in a statement, shifted the burden to the police department, saying they all ‘must rely on the department and on other sources to identify appropriate cases for review. We note that the premise of your inquiry appears to be that all internal police discipline is automatically Brady material. The expert you quote does not say that, and we do not believe it is the law.’ Meanwhile, Philly DA Seth Williams is on his way out, and Larry Krasner, a longtime civil rights attorney, is hoping to succeed him with a campaign premised on rooting out some of the police misconduct local prosecutors have long countenanced. ‘I’ve seen first hand how dirty they can get,’ Thompson said in his Internal Affairs complaint. ‘Even if they don’t like the tone of your voice they are not God.’”

  • From PennLive: “Immigration agents flood Allison Hill in Harrisburg”

“The ICE agents do not partner with police or even notify police of their raids, Olivera said. Instead, police have found out about the series of daily raids, some starting as early as 5 a.m., from residents. ‘Several people have been taken into custody,’ Olivera said. ‘Families have been broken up.’ The organization, Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania, or MILPA, is planning a 6 p.m. news conference Monday about the raids, said Harrisburg City Councilwoman Shamaine Daniels. The event will be at the St. Francis Assisi Church in Harrisburg. The raids have caused such fear in certain pockets of Allison Hill that residents are afraid to go to the corner store, Olivera said. Some parents are reluctant to drop their children off at school for fear of getting stopped, said Daniels, who is an immigration attorney. Instead, the children are missing classes. ‘It’s really bad,’ Daniels said. ‘They don’t just stop the person they’re looking for. They hassle everyone who’s around.’”

“The four kitchen employees were arrested as part of a recent surge in Immigration & Customs Enforcement activity, said Stephen Converse, the attorney representing them. The men are all in their mid- to late 20s and are from Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador. Converse declined to provide his clients’ names, but he said none has a criminal record. Their only crimes, he said, are being undocumented immigrants.”

  • From The Marshall Project: “The Seismic Change in Police Interrogations: A major player in law enforcement says it will no longer use a method linked to false confessions.”

“The technique was first introduced in the 1940s and 50s by polygraph expert John Reid, who intended it to be a modern-era reform — replacing the beatings that police frequently used to elicit information. His tactics soon became dogma in police departments and were considered so successful in garnering confessions that, in its famous 1966 Miranda decision, the U.S. Supreme Court cited it as a reason why suspects must be warned of their right against self-incrimination.But the advent of DNA evidence and advocacy by the Innocence Project in the 1990s showed that about one-third of exonerations involve confessions, once believed to be an absolute sign of guilt. Academics have theories why someone would falsely confess to a crime, including having a mental disability, being interviewed without a lawyer or parent in the room, or suffering through hours or days in jail before questioning.”

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