Bills that fill jails are Harrisburg’s version of bipartisanship. We can do without it | Opinion

Our constituents sent us to Harrisburg to be part of the work of fixing a broken system, not upholding and expanding its cruelties

By Nikil Saval and Rick Krajewski

Like many crime bills, Senate Bill 814 was born from tragedy.

In 2015, John Wilding, a Scranton police officer, set off in pursuit of three teen armed robbery suspects. In the middle of the chase, he fell from a 15-foot drop and hit his head, eventually dying from his injury. Prosecutors held the teens responsible for the officer’s death and charged them with second-degree murder.

In addition, lawmakers in the Pennsylvania Senate drafted SB14, sponsored by Sen. John Yudichak, I-Luzerne, that would make what happened to Officer Wilding a very specific crime. In October, Yudichak’s bill advanced through committee, passed the Senate, and was sent to the House.

The bill—“Wilding’s Law”—creates two new felony offenses for actions that are already illegal: (1) prohibiting evading police arrest or detention on foot; and (2) harming a police animal while evading arrest or detention, resisting arrest, or disarming a law enforcement officer. In spirit, the bill exists to memorialize the dead officer. In practice, it increases penalties for existing offenses, and thereby the time a person who is found guilty of those offenses is incarcerated.

The legislation draws on no history of criminal jurisprudence for the laws it amends; it rests on no data to justify the punishments it creates. Its only accomplishment—indeed what is likely to be its most significant effect—is its promise to solidify Pennsylvania’s position as the regional leader in incarcerating its own people.

At a time of intense political polarization, one thing remains steadfast in its ability to garner broad bipartisan support among Pennsylvania legislators: the creation of new crimes and sentences.

Each year, bill after bill is introduced, voted through with near universal approval, signed into law, and celebrated as a triumph of justice. During the 2019–2020 legislative session, despite widespread protests across the state against police brutality and mass incarceration, members of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly introduced more than 280 bills to expand criminal offenses and punishments, passing 15 new offenses and sub-offenses, with 26 new penalties.

The frequency with which this happens has led the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania to dub our Legislature a “bipartisan criminal offense factory.”

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The U.S. rate of incarceration is 4.3 times higher than it was five decades ago, despite rates of violent crime being roughly what they were in 1971. Our country leads in terms of sheer numbers of people that it incarcerates, along with rate at which it incarcerates them, so that globally, nearly one out of every five people incarcerated is locked up in a U.S. jail or prison.

Many factors contribute to our enormous rates of incarceration, not the least of which are state legislators across the country who, at every level of government, pass laws that play to our basest fears. What these proliferating statutes do is duplicate existing laws and impose harsher sentences under the auspices of adding a missing measure of protection.

Pennsylvania enacted the modern crimes code in 1972, which succinctly categorized all criminal behavior into 282 offenses and sub-offenses. In the time since, the number of offenses and sub-offenses has ratcheted up to more than 1,500, with the vast majority of these “new” offenses capturing the same behaviors already covered by offenses that existed in 1972.

Since then, our criminal law has become a bureaucratic hellscape in which anyone who merely touches the system becomes hopelessly ensnared.

Ninety-six thousand Pennsylvanians are currently behind bars, 284,000 more are on probation or parole, and nearly one in three has a criminal record.

For millions of Pennsylvanians, their record is a barrier that keeps them from education, employment, and housing. A criminal record becomes a life sentence for the person carrying it and for their loved ones, disrupting the health and financial wellbeing of a whole family for generations. Because Black and brown Pennsylvanians and LGBTQ Pennsylvanians are overrepresented at every level of the criminal legal system, these barriers perpetuate systemic racism and disenfranchisement.

Among those incarcerated right now are more than 8,000 people who are serving life sentences, which do not have the eligibility of parole, or sentences that are so long they are effectively life sentences.

Senate approves legislation to increase penalties for people who evade arrest on foot

Geriatric incarcerated people make up the fastest growing population in the U.S. prison system, and despite being a population that has one of the lowest rates of recidivism, Pennsylvania spends tens of millions of dollars each year to keep them locked away. Our Department of Corrections is even going so far as to open a new dementia care unit for incarcerated people at SCI-Rockview.

Laws that create new crimes and increase penalties for existing ones have nothing to do with public safety or deterrence. These laws are designed to punish, and that’s because we, as a society, offer victims precious little—a flash of retribution rather than sitting with them in their grief, providing them with what they need for material wellbeing, and carving a space in which they have the time and the support to heal.

As legislators, it is our job to listen what our constituents want, to understand that their priorities are our priorities. Some 91% of Americans say that the criminal justice system needs to be changed, including large majorities who want expanded alternatives to incarceration, community-based violence prevention workers, and expanded support services for victims.

Beyond their broad public support, these tools have proven results: over the past two decades, 19 states have reduced both their prison populations and their crime rates by shifting their resources and focus to community-based solutions.

Pennsylvania, too, must seek swift, effective solutions to the problem of violence in our communities. As organizers, we have spent years listening to the needs of our neighbors, who are now our constituents, and we know that the knee-jerk response to pass yet another bill in the wake of each terrible act of violence is not one of these solutions.

We keep ourselves from falling prey to the false solutions offered by these bills by taking a step back from the immediacy of the moment to analyze the bill’s true intent and see through to its logical impact.

For this, we have collaborated with partners working to end mass incarceration across our state to devise a five-question litmus test. When any criminal offense bill comes to a vote in committee or on the floor, we will ask ourselves the following:

Does this bill:

  1. Duplicate existing crimes and penalties?
  2. Increase prison sentences?
  3. Reduce resources available for incarcerated people to finish their sentences or be eligible for parole?
  4. Add conditions to parole or otherwise increase the chances that someone will violate their parole?
  5. Institute a mandatory minimum sentence or mandatory consecutive sentences?

This is a matter of human rights, of economic and fiscal responsibility, of public health, and of equity and justice.

Our constituents sent us to Harrisburg to be part of the work of fixing a broken system, not upholding and expanding its cruelties. If a bill fails any of the conditions of our litmus test, we will vote no.

And we believe that every member of the state Legislature who has vocally committed to ending mass incarceration ought to join us in voting no, too.

State Sen. Nikil Saval, a Democrat, represents the Philadelphia-based 1st Senate District. State Rep. Rick Krajewski, also a Democrat, represents the 188th House District, also based in Philadelphia. They write from Harrisburg. 

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.