What the ACLU of Pennsylvania did for Victims’ Rights

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Lakisha Briggs, victim of Domestic Violence

While officials in the Corbett administration were busy talking about Mumia Abu-Jamal to every microphone they could find, the ACLU of Pennsylvania spent the last two weeks of the legislative session working quietly with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence to pass a bill that will help keep victims of crime in their homes.

The passage of House Bill 1796 was one of the glowing civil liberties achievements of the 2013-14 legislative session at the General Assembly. The new law prohibits municipalities from punishing victims of crime for calling for emergency services. It was motivated by our litigation against the borough of Norristown, in Montgomery County, in which our client, Lakisha Briggs, was threatened with eviction under the borough’s “nuisance property” ordinance. Lakisha was tormented on multiple occasions by her ex-boyfriend. After emergency services were called to her home a third time, an incident that included her ex stabbing her in the neck with a shard of glass, the borough employed the ordinance to begin eviction proceedings against Lakisha and her family.

We argued in our lawsuit that the people have a First Amendment right to call upon their government for help.

Even with that backdrop, the passage of this bill almost didn’t happen.

After we filed our litigation, Representative Todd Stephens, a Republican from Montgomery County who is also a former assistant district attorney, introduced HB 1796. Rep. Stephens convened key stakeholders, including PCADV, ACLU-PA, housing advocates, and the associations that represent municipalities, to hammer out language that everyone could agree to and that achieved what we wanted. That agreed-to language passed the state House unanimously.

When the bill arrived in the state Senate, however, it was nearly derailed by unrelated amendments that were sought by the Pennsylvania Retailers Association, the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, and the National Rifle Association. (More about that drama here.)

On the Senate’s second-to-last day of session, HB 1796 was saved from those unwanted amendments when Senator Vincent Hughes, a Democrat from Philadelphia, successfully used a procedural motion called “revert to the prior printer’s number.” In English, this means the bill goes back to a previous form. In this case, Senator Hughes wanted to go back to the version of the bill that passed the House. That motion passed, 26-22, with six Republicans joining 20 Democrats in voting for the motion.

That wasn’t the end of the drama, though. When the Senate calendar was released the next day, the chamber’s final day of session for the year, the bill was marked “over,” meaning it would not get a vote and would not pass this session, forcing us to go back to the beginning of the process next year. While allies like the Women’s Law Project and others got the word out to grassroots supporters around the state, lobbyists from PCADV, especially, and ACLU-PA worked the halls of the capitol to convince Senate Republicans that this was a good vote to hold and that this bill was important.

Ultimately, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi called up the bill for a final vote. And, to his credit, Senator John Eichelberger, who introduced one of the unrelated amendments sought by the restaurants and the retailers, spoke in favor of the bill on the Senate floor. It passed unanimously.

Governor Corbett signed the bill yesterday, so he literally lifted a finger to help.
This was truly a bipartisan, bicameral, multi-organization effort. The real credit goes to everyone I’ve named above- Representative Stephens, Senator Hughes, Senator Pileggi, the 26 senators who voted for Hughes’ motion. And the most credit goes to our friends at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who struggled for this bill until the very last day and who wouldn’t let it pass with unwanted amendments.

Now people who are victims of crime, like Lakisha Briggs, know that they can call for help when they need it. They don’t have to choose between emergency service from their government or keeping their homes.

——-

Andy Hoover Andy Hoover is responsible for the ACLU-PA’s lobbying efforts at the state level in Harrisburg and at the federal level in Washington, D.C. From 2004 to 2008, he was a community organizer for ACLU-PA and is an experienced advocate, cutting his teeth in the anti-death penalty movement during the Ridge-Schweiker administration. Andy also serves on the boards of directors of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and The Interfaith Alliance of Pennsylvania.

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.