Report: Low level drug prosecutions in Pittsburgh are drowning people in debt | Thursday Morning Coffee

September 19, 2019 7:16 am

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Pennsylvania has undoubtedly made progress on criminal justice reform over the last few years – the product of some terrific cooperation between Republicans and Democrats and smart stewardship at the Department of Corrections by Secretary John Wetzel, whose tenure now spans two gubernatorial administrations.

But, this morning we’re reminded that, as much as we’ve made progress, there’s still a significant distance to go. And that fundamental truth is driven home by a story in The Appeal by our old friend, Joshua Vaughn.

In 2017, he writes, Democratic District Attorney Stephen Zappala prosecuted more than 1,700 low-level drug cases, Vaughn writes. The people charged in those cases faced more than $2 million in court-imposed debt when they emerged from the other end of the criminal justice system.

“Failure to pay these debts can result in probation revocation, incarceration, or driver’s license suspension. In 2017, more than 120,000 people in Pennsylvania had their driver’s license suspended for failure to pay fines and fees or failure to appear for court,” Vaughn wrote.

As an added bonus, Black people were more likely to be sent to jail than white people. Though the majority of those charged were “either sentenced to probation or ordered to pay fines, fees, and costs only,” Vaughn reported.

Zappala’s office did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment to its story.

The Pittsburgh skyline, viewed from the Duquesne Incline. (Dllu/WikiMedia Commons)

Unfortunately for Zappala, his critics did the talking for him. And it wasn’t pretty

“This is just a gross misallocation of resources,” Northeastern University law professor Leo Beletsky, told Vaughn.

“If you talk to [police and prosecutors] one on one, they will rightly tell you that [prosecuting low-level drug cases] is shoveling shit against the tide. This is a futile exercise,” Beletsky, the faculty director of Northeastern’s Health In Justice Action Lab, told Vaughn.

Additionally, as Vaughn noted, Zappala’s approach “[stands] in stark contrast to a growing movement among district attorneys, like Rachael Rollins in Boston, Joe Gonzales in San Antonio, and Dan Satterberg in Seattle, who are declining to prosecute drug possession cases and shifting resources to more serious crimes.”

And, as Vaughn further noted, the approach isn’t doing a whole lot to reduce recidivism either. Around a third of those prosecuted for low-level offenses by Zappala’s office in 2017 were arrested again and charged with new offenses in 2018, he wrote.About half the new arrests were drug charges.

Did we mention that Zappala is up for re-election this year — in his first contested campaign since taking office in 1999?

His opponent, a public defender named Lisa Middleman, told The Appeal that, if elected, she’d try to get drug possession downgraded from a misdemeanor to a summary offense — basically, a traffic ticket. She’d also allow people to avoid the criminal justice system if they go to inpatient or outpatient treatment programs, Vaughn reported.

“We want people to get treatment,” Middleman told Vaughn. “We want people to be whole. We want people to be contributing members of society.”

WikiMedia Commons

Our Stuff.
Little more than 12 hours after his arrest on charges of possessing child pornography, Republican Mike Folmer resigned from the state SenateElizabeth Hardison has the story. Calls for Folmer’s resignation grew steadily throughout the morning on Wednesday, with both Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and some Republicans both calling on the Lebanon County lawmaker to step down.

Environmental advocates in Pennsylvania assailed the Trump administration’s plan to block states from setting tougher emissions standards. Pennsylvania is one of 13 states that would be impacted by the move, which advocates call “unlawful,” and have vowed to fight. Capital-Star Washington Bureau Chief Robin Bravender, with an assist from yours truly, has the story.

Treating people with addiction and pain is one of the most ‘difficult’ areas of medicine. There are new guidelines to help, Sarah Anne Hughes reports.

Stephen Caruso swung by the House State Government Committee’s first public hearing in three years on redistricting reform. Advocates were united in their criticism, less so in their solutions.

From our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune: Philly authorities have accused a Garden State contractor of using fake companies to sidestep minority-owned business rules.

On our Commentary Page, a UMass/Boston scholar suggests it will take wholesale reparations to close the yawning wealth gap between Black and white Americans.

Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, appears at a 2010 event put on by Emily’s List (Photo via Flickr Commons)

Pennsylvania Dems think the 2020 primary pack can take a few hints from Amy Klobuchar’s ‘Blue Wall’ tour, the Inquirer reports.
A Pa. labor official has ordered a new union election for grad assistants at Pitt, the Post-Gazette reports.
A prominent Allentown restaurateur was charged with 31 counts of theft on Wednesday, the Morning Call reports.
Former Philadelphia Daily News columnist John Baer has filed his first piece for PennLiveBon chance, sir.

Here’s your #Carlisle Instagram of the Day:

The U.S. abortion rate has dropped to its lowest ebb since Roe v. WadeNo, dumb attempts to restrict abortion had nothing to do with it. The Cut has the story.
Philly students will get an absence if they join Friday’s climate strikeWHYY-FM reports.
Lawmakers in the state House have started moving a pro-nat gas package of billsWITF-FM reports.
From yoga to zumba, things are changing at your local reports.
Pollsters say that President Donald Trump may be closer to the 2020 Dems than recent numbers suggest, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
The House gavels in at 11 a.m., for some reason.
Education” Secretary Betsy DeVos, who, as far as we can tell, doesn’t actually like education or public schools, travels to Harrisburg this morning for a roundtable with “state legislators … fighting to expand education freedom.” Which of the Capital City’s struggling public schools is the site of this summit, you ask? None of them. DeVos’ roundtable will be held at a parochial school, of course.
At 10 a.m., Rep. Dawn Keefer holds a newser in the Capitol rotunda on a bill upping the penalties for people who encourage/instruct others on how to take their own lives.
Also at 10 a.m., the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission meets in the Keystone Building to discuss, among other things, utility assistance programs for low-income households.

Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Barb Gleim
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta
5:30 p.m.: Reception for Sen. Kim Ward
Ride the circuit, and give at the max, and you’re out a mere $5,000 today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Another busy day for birthdays: Best wishes go out this morning to Harrisburg-area PR exec Anne Deeter Gallaher; our former PennLive colleague, John Boor, and to the very speedy Kelly Leighton, of Harrisburg, all of whom celebrate today. Congratulations and enjoy the day, friends.

Heavy Rotation.
We’re reliably informed that Las Vegas’ own The Killers are playing up in Bethlehem this evening, and that some amongst you might even be in the audience. To that end, then, here’s a whole, dang playlist to set the tone for the day.

Thursday’s Gratuitous Soccer Link.
Thanks to some holes in the midfield, Real Madrid got blanked 3-nil by Paris St. Germain on Wednesday, The Guardian reports.

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.