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, www.votesmartjustice.org, 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.

IN OTHER NEWS

(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.

Seth Williams will not seek reelection as Philadelphia’s District Attorney, citing “regrettable mistakes” in personal life

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Seth Williams is out.

Seth Williams will not run for reelection as Philadelphia’s District Attorney. Today, from a press conference report in The Inquirer, some remarkable statements: “‘I have made regrettable mistakes in my personal life and personal financial life that cast an unnecessary shadow’ over the work of the District Attorney’s Office, Williams said Friday. He said his decisions to accept gift and not report them brought ‘shame’ and ‘embarrassment’ to the office. ‘For this, I will always hold deep regret in my heart,’ Williams said. He has previously said that friends helped him during a rough financial period during and after his divorce, and has stressed that he took no official action in return for the gifts.”

R. Seth Williams was sworn in as Philly’s DA in January 2010, and was re-elected in 2014. Williams has been in hot water since at least August, when he admitted in financial disclosures that he’d taken $160,500 in undisclosed gifts — some of which came from defense attorneys in cases he was prosecuting. The gifts included $45,000 in home repairs, as well as sideline passes to Eagles games, vacation gifts, cash, and gift cards. The FBI probed the gifts, and continues to probe similar financial questions surrounding his nonprofit organization. Williams settled with the Ethics Board to pay a $62,000 fine, but the gifts have continued to plague him.

So has his record. While Philly media have understandably focused on Williams’ ethical violations in recent months, his term as DA has incited derision, particularly from those who expected Williams to bring progressive reforms to a DA’s office that has historically and notoriously been “tough on crime” — and even deadly.

After running on a platform of eliminating the death penalty in Philadelphia, for instance, Williams changed course and sued Governor Tom Wolf after the commonwealth’s chief executive initiated a death penalty moratorium. That’s just one example of Williams’ questionable actions. His office also offered a boilerplate re-sentencing option for men and women serving juvenile life without parole sentences that inspired a federal judge to lash out and accuse Williams of bringing “a lack of due diligence” to an important issue that affected hundreds of prisoners. Williams also refused, for three years, to drop the murder case of a man who had been exonerated by DNA evidence, and it took a jury to eventually set that man free. Williams has overseen headline-making and blatantly unfair civil forfeiturepractices; failed to take potential wrongful conviction cases seriously; and even failed to dismiss prosecutors wrapped up in the so-called “porngate” scandal.

Williams may, in the future, argue that his financial dealings brought about the end of his run as DA. But finances weren’t the only aspect of his tenure that was disconcerting. His judgement was, too.

ALSO MAKING HEADLINES

This week, HB 27, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee. This bill prohibits public agencies from identifying a police officer who has discharged his firearm or used force for 30 days after the incident. It also threatens criminal charges for any official who violates this gag order. There was no press about the bill this week, and ACLU-PA did not issue a public statement. But we did issue a memo to the House Judiciary Committee. It reads, in part: “Unfortunately, the supporters of HB 27 fail to recognize or to respect the very real concerns raised by communities concerned about unfairness in policing. Our police officers are public employees with a great deal of power, including the power to use force. This power must be coupled with the responsibility to be transparent and accountable to the public.”

Read the entire memo here.

And one more thing before we get to this week’s links…

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held yesterday that those whose death sentences are overturned can no longer be held in solitary. The case was argued by Harrisburg and Pittsburgh-based attorneys, involves Pa. Department of Corrections practices, and involves two Pennsylvania plaintiffs who “had their death sentences vacated but were nevertheless detained in solitary confinement.”

Read the opinion here.

IN OTHER NEWS

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

Some municipalities view Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed $25 per capita fee to use state police as a bargain compared to the cost of establishing a local department. Photo from The Morning Call.
  • From The Morning Call: “To some municipalities, Wolf’s proposed state police fee sounds like a bargain”

“The governor’s fee for the township’s 31,432 residents would equate to $785,800. That’s still far below the $4 million to $5 million experts estimated in 2012 would be needed to start and maintain a police department. Neighboring Upper Macungie Township’s relatively new police force took up $4.2 million of its overall budget in 2016.” And related, from The Tribune-Review in September: “Money from increased fees and gas taxes that drivers have been paying since 2013 on the promise to fix Pennsylvania’s crumbling roads and bridges is increasingly being diverted to support the state police, budget figures show. Many government officials, legislators and construction industry members said the practice needs to stop, especially as the nation’s highest gas tax — ushered in by the 2013 transportation funding overhaul known as Act 89 — generates billions in new revenue for roads.”

  • From ACLU-PA: “State Senate Bill Will Force Counties to Violate the Constitution”

“This legislation creates a no-win situation for counties and cities that want to welcome immigrants and that know they have obligations under the constitution,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “If this bill becomes law, people will be held in jail when they should not be held. We are prepared to challenge illegal detentions when they occur.”

  • From ACLU National: “Flying Home From Abroad, a Border Agent Stopped and Questioned Me … About My Work for the ACLU”

“It didn’t happen during the Bush years when I traveled to meet with and represent Afghan and Iraqi survivors of U.S. military torture, to Guantanamo as an observer at the military commissions there, or to attend meetings and give talks abroad about U.S. human rights abuses in the national security context. It didn’t happen during the Obama years when my work included challenges to unlawful targeted killing, anti-Muslim discrimination, unfair watchlisting, illegal spying, and other U.S. government abuses at home and abroad. Over all those years, government officials made their views known about this work — often in opposition, sometimes in support. But no government agent ever asked the chilling question I was asked this time: Do you understand why someone might have a different perspective about you?”

“The Government indeed asserts that it violates separation of powers for the judiciary to entertain a constitutional challenge to executive actions such as this one. There is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.”

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.