Pa.’s criminal justice system is still rigged against the poor. Wolf’s call for indigent defense funding is start | Monday Morning Coffee

February 8, 2021 7:07 am

Good Monday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Back in January, Sister Helen Prejean, who was immortalized on film by Susan Sarandon in the 1995 movie “Dead Man Walking,” offered about as apt a summation of what ails our criminal justice as any you’re likely to find.

“The death penalty is fundamentally a poor person’s issue,” Prejean wrote on Twitter on Jan. 16. “Over nearly 40 years of visiting death row facilities across the United States, I have never met a single person with money or resources. Capital punishment means ‘those without the capital get the punishment.’”

Prejean was speaking specifically of the death penalty in that instance, but she could have been talking about any segment of our criminal justice system which, despite reforms, still remains rigged against the poor and people of color. From cash bail to the quality of the defense you can afford at trial, real access to justice, fundamentally, remains the preserve of the rich.

Last November, experts at the Brennan Center, writing in USA Today, observed that “mass incarceration has been a driving force of economic inequality,” that’s only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Involvement in the criminal justice system — specifically time in prison or conviction of a crime — casts a shadow over someone’s life, limiting their ability to earn a living wage in the short and long term,” the Brennan Center’s Ames Grawert and Terry-Ann Craigie wrote. “The effect of prison is especially pronounced: a 52 percent reduction in annual earnings and little earnings growth for the rest of their lives, amounting to a loss of $500,000 over several decades.”

So it was encouraging to hear senior staffers for Gov. Tom Wolf, say that the administration wants to “build support for indigent defense” into the spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

(Photo via (c) BortN66 –

Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that doesn’t allocate general funds for indigent defense, according to a 2011 study by the Joint State Government Commission. Those costs are borne entirely by the state’s 67 counties, which each maintain their own public defender’s office.

(The Sixth Amendment Center)

The state took a token step toward redressing the balance in 2019, providing $500,000 in funding to reimburse counties for costs of indigent criminal defense in capital cases, the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison reported at the time.

The money, tucked into a piece of budget-enabling legislation known as the Fiscal Code, was distributed through a grant program administered by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. The grant program didn’t go far enough for criminal justice reformers, who called it a token amount.

“It’s a small and … an unrealistic appropriation,” Phyllis Subin, a former public defender who now heads the Pennsylvania Coalition for Justice in Philadelphia, told Hardison. “This is pretty much a drop in the bucket of what’s really needed in terms of appropriate and systemic change.”

Wolf didn’t propose a specific appropriation in his 2021 spending plan, administration spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger told the Capital-Star on Sunday.

“The administration is looking forward to working with the Legislature to create this program in Pennsylvania,” Kensinger said.

(Patrick Feller/Flickr)

Whatever dollar figure Wolf and lawmakers eventually negotiate, that money can’t come soon enough, Sean Quinlan, a criminal defense lawyer in Cumberland County, said. That’s particularly true in the case of death penalty prosecutions, he added.

“The death penalty is a political tool used by district attorneys in election years to seek career advancement, not criminal deterrence,” Quinlan, also a Capital-Star opinion contributor, said. “If by ‘increased funding for indigent defense’ the governor intends to plug budget holes in counties out of pocket for defense in capital cases, he’ll essentially be subsidizing the campaigns of county district attorneys, not protecting the poor or fixing a a broken system. Enormous capital case defense expenses are just the symptom. The death penalty is the disease.”

Quinlan is right. While other states are moving toward abolition (Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, like Wolf, a Democrat, is expected to sign an abolition bill any day now.), Wolf, who imposed a moratorium on executions, was notably silent on abolition during his budget address.

Pennsylvania, which hasn’t executed anyone since 1999, effectively doesn’t have a death penalty, so one wonders why Wolf didn’t just shoot the moon and propose eliminating this racist, antiquated and immoral relic.

Wolf’s spending plan does, however, call for probation and bail reforms. As we’ve previously noted, state Rep. Summer Lee, D-Alleghenyhas a bill banning cash bailRep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, meanwhile, is expected to soon reintroduce the death penalty abolition bill he pushed in the 2019-2020 legislative session. In a tidy circle, Prejean lent her support to that effort as well.

With just a year and some change left in his second, and final term, this year’s budget will likely be Wolf’s last chance to get some of his big ideas, which also include a long-sought minimum wage hike and a $1.35 billion, income-tax funded boost in education spending, over the goal line.

Wolf could truly secure his legacy by also winning passage of cash bail and death penalty abolition, as well as securing funding for indigent defense. It would take some muscle, and marshaling the same coalition of religious and fiscally minded conservatives and progresses who got initial rounds of criminal justice reform signed into law.

That’s a heavy lift in a Legislature that’s taken a decidedly Trump-y turn. And Wolf may want to pick his battles for what’s already shaping up to be a bruising budget season.

But it’s not impossible.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Associate Editor Cassie Miller
 leads our coverage this morning. In this week’s edition of the Numbers Racket, she takes a look at the cities whose residents took on the most debt during the pandemic.

From our partners at the Philadelphia Gay News: Philadelphia’s transgender community is speaking out on the painful issue of intimate partner violence.

The United Steelworkers want anti-union efforts against University of Pittsburgh faculty and grad students to end, our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper report.

In Philadelphia, community leaders, advocates, and Black clergy are weighing in on city Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw’s first year on the job, which was marked by protest and unrest, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

On our Commentary Page this morning, opinion regular Dick Polman welcomes the confirmation of new Secretary of State Antony Blinken and a U.S. foreign policy that no longer involves gratuitously alienating our allies. And when they were shut out of the whitewashed world of children’s literature, Black Americans took matters into their own hands, a scholar at the Savannah College of Art and Design writes.

En la Estrella-Capital: Wolf pide un aumento del impuesto sobre la renta para cerrar el déficit estatal que se avecina y financiar la educación. Y El Alcalde Bill Peduto de Pittsburgh propondrá a Juneteenth como feriado oficial de la ciudad.

House Homeland Security Oversight and Management Efficiency Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Scott Perry makes opening remarks during a hearing on “critical canine contributions to the DHS mission’” in Washington, D.C., May 18, 2017. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Photo by Glenn Fawcett

The Inquirer
 profiles U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District — the most loved, and hated, congressman in Pennsylvania.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is officially in the 2022 race for U.S. Senate, the Post-Gazette reports.
PennLive explains why some Pennsylvania restaurants are defying COVID-19 orders.
The Morning Call dives into the fundraising in Allentown’s mayoral contest.
The Citizens-Voice looks at how local libraries are dealing with the pandemic.
Lenten fish-fries will be curtailed or canceled in Washington County this year, the Observer-Reporter reports.

Here’s your #Harrisburg Instagram of the Day:


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A post shared by Jeffrey Totaro (@jeffreytotaro)

Philadelphia teachers are defying a return to the classroom, and are planning protests for Monday, WHYY-FM reports. looks at Republican-led efforts to curtail ballot access after a record turnout in 2020.
Politico looks at where Republicans and Democrats agree on Donald Trump.

What Goes On.
Yes, friends, it’s almost that time of year, it’s nearly Budget Hearing Season. It all gets underway on Tuesday in the House and Senate. In the meantime, you can content yourself with a House Democratic Policy Committee meeting. The panel meets at 11 a.m. in G50 Irvis.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to longtime reader and veteran union rabble-rouser, John Meyerson, Congratulations, sir, and enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation.
It’s Black History Month. And a meme reminds us that there would be no dubstep without Black people. More specifically, there would be no dubstep without dub. So let’s pay tribute this morning to the legendary King Tubby, who pioneered the art form in a tiny studio in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1970s. Here’s one of his finest moments on vinyl, “King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown,” recorded with the equally legendary Augustus Pablo, a virtuoso on the Melodica. That’s an instrument a band in Philly would later call a “Hooter.” But Pablo got there first, and he was never equalled.

Monday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Yes, there was some sort of football game on Sunday night. But the only sporting event that held our attention was Carolina’s 6-5 win over Columbus, where the ‘Canes wrapped it up with a three goal third period to secure the win. Patrik Laine scored his first goal for Columbus since being dealt from Winnipeg a week or so back.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.