Politicians in Harrisburg are Using People With Down Syndrome

By Rabbi Mordechai Liebling

Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives recently passed HB 2050, a bill that attempts to restrict abortion based on a Down syndrome diagnosis. They did so without holding a single public hearing, and the bill is now before the state Senate. I’m the parent of a son with Down syndrome, and I can tell you what this bill truly is: an attack on a woman’s right to control her own reproductive care decisions in our commonwealth.

The bill would make it a felony to terminate a pregnancy based solely on a prenatal diagnosis that a fetus has Down syndrome. It copies legislative efforts in several other states that restrict abortion access and are now facing legal challenges over their constitutionality. It’s also an infuriating exploitation of people with Down syndrome as political pawns by Harrisburg politicians so eager to interfere with Pennsylvanians’ reproductive freedom.

There are a lot of misperceptions of what it’s like to raise a child with Down syndrome. The reality is that never before have the opportunities been so great for people with cognitive disabilities, from employment opportunities to the level of acceptance in society. If this proposed legislation was truly about protecting the wellbeing of people with Down syndrome, then it would mandate more funding for genetic education and genetic counseling about the realities of having a child with Down syndrome.

Any parent with a child with Down syndrome will tell you their child is a blessing, and our son Lior has added so much to my family. Now 27, he attended a two-year program at Temple University for people with cognitive disabilities and works full-time while living in an independent living community. It’s critical that people understand the possibilities that exist for people with cognitive disabilities, including specially designed college programs and state and local services. Any new legislation should focus on widening access to such possibilities.

The Liebling family

It makes me angry that people with Down syndrome are being used as bargaining chips in Harrisburg to restrict a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her reproductive healthcare. This is purely a manipulative play by anti-abortion legislators, one that we need to fight not only in Pennsylvania’s legislature, but nationwide.

Not all people whose lives are touched by Down Syndrome or cognitive disabilities agree that this bill is the way to advocate for people with those disabilities. Having Lior has brought immeasurable joy to my family, and I’m so glad he came into our lives. But that doesn’t mean parenthood is my – or Harrisburg politicians’ – decision to make for anyone else.

Take action! Tell your state senator to vote NO on House Bill 2050 by clicking this link. Women’s access to reproductive healthcare depends on it!

To Think that SB 8 Becoming Law will Effectively Reform Civil Asset Forfeiture is Naive

By Midge Carter, ACLU-PA Criminal Justice Intern

Elizabeth Young’s Philadelphia home was taken from her because her son was charged with selling marijuana from it. Photo from Philly.com.

Elizabeth Young is a 72-year-old grandmother and lifelong Philadelphia resident. Young has never been charged or convicted of a crime. And yet, in 2010 Young had her home and vehicle seized by Philadelphia police through civil asset forfeiture, a mechanism allowing law enforcement to seize property they think has been involved in a crime, whether or not its owner has been charged or convicted of a crime. Because civil forfeiture takes place outside criminal statutes, those who have their property taken are not afforded legal counsel. The practiceis also financially lucrative for police departments and district attorneys, and it disproportionately affects the poor and people of color.

Under the Trump administration, it may expand.

In a speech Monday to the National District Attorneys Association, Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed intent to “develop policies to increase forfeitures.” According to a senior justice official, Sessions intends to achieve this in part by rolling back Holder-era policies put in place following complaints of law enforcement abuse. To Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, civil asset forfeiture is about bringing in the revenue of crime, not about bringing the crime to court, saying on Wednesdaythat “sometimes there will be criminal prosecutions, sometimes there won’t.” And the current president doesn’t seem to understand the concept of asset forfeiture reform in the least. In February he described forfeiture reform as situations where “[criminals] have a huge stash of drugs. So in the old days, you take it. Now we’re criticized if we take it.”

In the absence of federal guidance, some states are taking initiative and reforming civil forfeiture themselves. Twenty-four states have reformed forfeiture laws, but effective reform is slow and halting. The Institute for Justice notes that a “common refrain in the states where reform efforts have been unsuccessful is that resistance from law enforcement leaders killed the bills.”

For proof of that, look at the Keystone State. Three weeks ago, Governor Wolf signed SB 8, a bill reforming legislation relating to civil asset forfeiture. ACLU-PA has previously written about SB 8, but now that it’s law, let’s recap.

SB 8 started out as a strong bill that would prohibit forfeiture without a criminal conviction. It was backed heavily by advocacy groups. And then law enforcement lobbyists got involved, and the bill was weakened. Wolf signed that version of the bill.

The new reform law doesn’t do much to protect citizens, and what reforms it provides are modest. Although sponsors touted the amendments as raising the commonwealth’s burden of proof, the amended bill places the initial burden of proof on property owners, most of whom are unrepresented, rather than the government. The amended bill also makes it easier for the government to take property by default without the government ever having to present evidence to justify the forfeiture.

It does require a hearing for cases involving real property. But it misses the mark on actual protections. All of the proceeds from forfeiture still go indirectly to law enforcement; they are supposed to be used for fighting drug crime, but often are used for general operating expenses like salaries. In Philly that includes the salaries of several assistant district attorneys who do nothing but forfeiture.

Property owners can still have their property taken away without being convicted of a crime. And counsel still isn’t guaranteed. These are issues that need to be addressed if civil forfeiture reform is going to have any tangible impact.

And people like Elizabeth Young need reform to have a real impact. Young lost her house and minivan after her son, who lived at her home, was arrested for possession and intent to distribute marijuana. He was convicted when law enforcement agents found the drugs after searching Young’s home and car. Law enforcement agents then seized Young’s property, claiming it was connected with the crime.

In order to receive relief, Young had to take her case up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In May, nearly eight years after her house was seized, they ruled in her favor,deciding that authorities must prove that “owner had actual knowledge of the illegal use of the property or consented to the underlying criminal activity” in order to seize assets.

Young’s Pa. Supreme Court ruling is a victory. To think that SB 8 becoming law will effectively reform civil asset forfeiture is naive.

If you’re interested in learning more about civil asset forfeiture, check out ACLU-PA’s three reports on the topic here, read Isaiah Thompson’s ground-breaking reporting from Philadelphia City Paper on the topic, and the Institute for Justice’s Policing for Profit report (which talks a lot about Philly). Sarah Stillman’s excellent piece in The New Yorker is also worth a read, and this bit from John Oliver is worth watching if you want to giggle while you learn and scream at the television.

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

Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than anywhere in the country, and it’s not clear that the nationwide fight to eliminate juvenile life without parole sentences is over. Photo from The Atlantic.

 

  • The Atlantic: “The Reckoning Over Young Prisoners Serving Life Without Parole”

“Life sentences are an American institution. According to a recent Sentencing Project report, more than 200,000 people are serving either life in prison or a ‘virtual’ life sentence: They haven’t been explicitly sentenced to spend their natural lives behind bars, but their prison terms extend beyond a typical human lifespan. Of these prisoners, thousands were sentenced as juveniles. More than 2,300 are serving life without parole, often abbreviated LWOP, and another 7,300 have virtual life sentences. Only after they serve decades in prison do members of the latter group typically become eligible for parole.”

  • Fox43: “PA Supreme Court: Police must obtain search warrant to draw blood from unconscious DUI suspects”

 “The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled today that law enforcement must obtain a search warrant before drawing blood from unconscious suspects they believe to have been driving under the influence (DUI). Justice David Wecht’s opinion recognizes that motorists are ‘deemed to have given consent’ when on the road in Pennsylvania under the ‘implied consent’ statute but notes that the driver, under the same law, has a right to refuse and if he/she can’t, the test may not be conducted. The decision stems from an incident that took place in 2012.”

  • The Marshall Project: “Pennsylvania went too far with new sex offender registration laws, says state’s supreme court.”

“In 2012 state lawmakers amended the “Megan’s Law” there to require lifetime registration requirements. Several men who long ago were convicted of sexual offenses, and who had fulfilled the 10-year registration requirement in place at the time, sued, arguing the new law violated their constitutional rights. On Wednesday, they won their case. Allentown Morning Call Related: Read the decision. Supreme Court of Pennsylvania More: Background on the case. Allentown Morning Call

“The consequences of rescinding DACA would be severe, not just for the hundreds of thousands of young people who rely on the program — and for their employers, schools, universities, and families — but for the country’s economy as a whole. For example, in addition to lost tax revenue, American businesses would face billions in turnover costs, as employers would lose qualified workers whom they have trained and in whom they have invested. And as the chief law officers of our respective states, we strongly believe that DACA has made our communities safer, enabling these young people to report crimes to police without fear of deportation.”

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It’s Time to Get Real About Race and the Death Penalty

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

SQ Lethal Injection Room

Two weeks ago, Governor Wolf announced a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania and granted a reprieve from execution to Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to be executed on March 4. Wolf will continue granting reprieves- a power he is granted by law – until an analysis commissioned by the state Senate returns with its recommendations and “all concerns are addressed satisfactorily.”

In his announcement of the moratorium, Wolf referred to capital punishment as “unjust” and cited several reasons for using the word. In his memorandum that explained the moratorium, he spent several paragraphs discussing the role of race in capital punishment.

Death penalty abolitionists don’t use race as one of their top tier messages, and who can blame them? A 2007 survey found that support for capital punishment actually goes up when white respondents hear messages of racial disparity. White America is still sticking its collective fingers in its ears when it comes to race and the criminal justice system.

Pennsylvania has consistently shown a penchant for sentencing black defendants to death. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, of the 188 people on death row in the commonwealth, 120 of them, or 64 percent, are people of color, as of October 1, 2014. Over the 15 years that I have been involved in death penalty repeal work, that number has been as high as 70 percent.

A study by Professor David Baldus and his colleagues at the University of Iowa found that a black defendant in Philadelphia was 3.9 times more likely to receive a death sentence than a white defendant in a similar case.

The Baldus study was 17 years ago and was based on data from 1983 to 1993. As part of the Senate-supported analysis, researchers are trying to update the question of race and the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, according to one of my sources, at least one high-profile district attorney stymied that work for months by refusing to release data from his county on race in capital cases. He was ultimately persuaded but only after much cajoling. Some public officials just don’t want to talk about facts in the death penalty debate.

The race of the victim may play an even greater role in deciding who lives and who dies. Homicide victims are white in about 50 percent cases. But since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the victims were white in 76 percent of cases that ended in execution.

There are many reasons why capital punishment is slowly being swept into the dustbin of history. Since 2007, six states have repealed their death penalty statutes, bringing the total of non-death states to 18. In 2014, only seven states carried out executions, and 80 percent of those were in three states. Governor Wolf did the right thing in bringing a halt to the machinery of death, and he used the right word to describe it- unjust.

To learn more about the debate over Pennsylvania’s moratorium on executions, check out the discussion on WITF-FM’s Smart Talk, which featured Spero Lappas, who is a member of the ACLU of PA’s South Central Chapter board, a retired criminal defense attorney, and former cooperating counsel with ACLU-PA.

Andy Hoover is the legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and is the former chair of the board of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

This blog post is part of a series for Black History Month.