Am I My Brother’s Keeper or My Sister’s? The impossible battle between women’s rights and criminal justice.

By Maheen Kaleem, Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Maheen Kaleem is a Stoneleigh emerging leader fellow at the ACLU of PA.

Maheen Kaleem is a Stoneleigh emerging leader fellow at the ACLU of PA.

There’s an old adage: you never know how you’ll react until it happens to you. I live by those words.

I’ve spent the last decade committed to improving the lives of two groups of people: women victimized by sexual violence, and youth of color impacted by racial bias in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Seems like they would go hand in hand, right? Wrong. In both my professional and my personal life I have constantly been faced with an impossible choice—who do I care about more—people of color or women?

Under current laws, if someone is a victim of sexual assault, domestic violence, or sexual exploitation, they only have one option: call the police and participate in prosecution to ensure your perpetrator goes to jail. But for many victims and survivors, justice does not mean locking someone up.

I am one of those survivors. A few years ago, a former boyfriend and I got into a verbal argument which turned physically violent. I worked closely with most of the domestic violence detectives in the area. If I had called the police, he would have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But I chose not to.

My loved ones thought I was weak, and many of them lost respect for me. My co-workers worried I was setting a bad example for the young women who were my clients. Everyone around me felt my decision not to involve the police was driven out of fear and lack of self-worth. They could not fathom the truth. The truth? I didn’t call the police because for me, justice did not mean jail.

Every victim and survivor has different needs. I believe in restorative justice. What I needed was for my perpetrator to understand the harm he caused me and to receive the tools to deal with his anger in non-violent ways.

For me, justice did not mean sending my perpetrator into the criminal justice system, because our system prioritizes punishment over rehabilitation. We spend significantly more money incarcerating people than on education, mental health services, and reentry services for formerly incarcerated people. Maybe punishment is appropriate—but only when there is some semblance of fairness. He was a young man of color, which meant he was more likely to receive a disproportionately harsh sentence. It also meant that it would be harder for him to keep or find work because he would have a criminal record.

Unfortunately, the law does not allow victims to choose whether to involve the criminal justice system. If we want to access services, we are often required to involve the police. Many jurisdictions mandate that victims fleeing domestic violence or sexual assault cannot access emergency shelter unless they report the incident to the police, even when a police officer is the perpetrator. If a child victim of commercial sexual exploitation refuses to cooperate with a police investigation of her trafficker, she herself can be prosecuted for prostitution, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, or even trafficking of other minors. I know 17 year-olds who are sentenced to 25-year sentences simply because they were afraid or unwilling to testify against a perpetrator.

Many victims do need the protection of law enforcement, but they are penalized for seeking help. Many places have mandatory arrest laws, placing victims at a heightened risk of violence and even arrest. My colleagues at the ACLU have challenged town ordinances that encourage and require landlords to evict tenants when the police have been called to their homes for domestic disputes. Even when victims do agree to testify against perpetrators, they are not given enough protection during the course of a prosecution. I know child victims of sex trafficking who were attacked for agreeing to testify, even when they informed law enforcement that they felt unsafe. In the most tragic instance, one of these victims was killed for cooperating with the police.

Clearly, we need to do better. If we are going to address violence against women we have to imagine policies that focus on ending violence and supporting victims. Maybe it means harsher penalties for abusers. But maybe it also means more programs that teach non-violent conflict resolution in jails, police academies, and schools. My ability to receive help should not depend on whether or not I am not ready to send my perpetrator to jail, or face him in open court. It should depend on what I decide I need.

This is what justice looks like to me.


Maheen Kaleem is a Stoneleigh emerging leader fellow at the ACLU of PA. She holds a JD from Georgetown University Law Center and a Bachelors from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Prior to law school, Maheen served as a crisis responder and violence prevention worker to over 350 commercially sexually exploited children. Maheen is committed to promoting racial justice and ending gender-based violence.

Since When is it Criminal to be a Kid?

By Maheen Kaleem, Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania


Imagine yourself as an adolescent. A fellow classmate who has been annoying you the whole year finally goes too far—he talks about your girlfriend. As a response, you use profanity, and you and the classmate start yelling at each other. Are you disrupting the classroom? Of course. The teacher hears the two of you. Instead of pulling both of you aside to have a conversation, or sending you to the principal’s office, he summons a police officer from the hallway.

That police officer has three options. He can take you to school authorities and assist the principal in determining what school discipline consequences you will face. He can arrest you and charge you with a misdemeanor or a felony. If your actions are too minor to fit within the definition of a misdemeanor or felony under the Pennsylvania Criminal Code, the police officer can issue you a citation for “disorderly conduct.”

In Pennsylvania, “disorderly conduct” is a summary offense. It is the lowest grade of crime, and if you are a minor, you cannot be imprisoned for a summary offense. Sounds like it’s not that a big deal, right? Until you find out that in addition to being suspended, you have to go to court and you have to pay a fine. You aren’t going to juvenile court because summary offenses are heard in adult court. You don’t have an automatic right to an attorney. It is just you, a teenager, your parent, and the judge in adult court. And it is your word against a police officer’s. You and your family can be ordered to pay fines as high as $300. If you are found guilty, the incident will stay on your record as an adult criminal conviction.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania recently issued a report, “Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools,” which shows that black and Latino youth are at a disproportionate risk of being removed from school through suspension, expulsion and contact with law enforcement. Once students have one contact with the criminal justice system, they are likely to have further contact. They become alienated from school because of the stigma that comes with being system-involved, some drop out altogether. Convictions for summary offenses create an adult criminal record that later becomes a barrier to accessing higher education and obtaining employment.

Law enforcement officers throughout the commonwealth are issuing citations to students for catchall summary offenses such as disorderly conduct, harassment, and criminal mischief. Study upon study show that these low-level, non-violent acts are characteristic of normal adolescent behavior. Some examples of summary citations include a female student who was cited for telling a fellow student to “f-off” after he had been making inappropriate comments to her, and a student who was running in the hallway and accidentally ran into a teacher. Should this behavior be tolerated in a classroom or school setting? Maybe not. Does this mean that the student deserves an adult criminal conviction on their record? Absolutely not.

A magisterial judge in Pittsburgh recently spoke out against a new Pittsburgh Public Schools policy requiring that all summary citations be approved by the chief of school police before being issued. The judge claimed that sending students to his courtroom was a way to preserve school safety, because appearing in criminal court might “scare” students into compliance. This is the wrong approach. Summary citations are not issued for behaviors that pose a threat to school safety, and they are not issued in any consistent manner. Policies like the one in Pittsburgh decrease the number of citations issued for minor behaviors—they do not prevent school officials or law enforcement from taking all necessary measures to protect the school community.

School is where we learn how to interact with the rest of the world. Children make mistakes. Our first reaction should not be to push certain students out of school and into the justice system. If our goal is to keep our communities safe, we should work harder to keep our youth in school, and to teach all of our students how to resolve conflicts peacefully.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

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Maheen Kaleem joined the ACLU-PA in August of 2013. Maheen recently received her J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center in May of 2013 and her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. She has worked on a number of issues related to the women’s rights and racial justice, with a particular emphasis on the rights of incarcerated women and children, and a special focus on the needs of girls in the juvenile justice system.