Commentary

Report: Pa. Legislature a ‘bipartisan criminal offense factory’ that drives up costs, doesn’t fix crime | Wednesday Morning Coffee

June 9, 2021 7:16 am

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.
Even as they complain about the roughly $3 billion a year that the commonwealth spends on prisons, probation, and parole, Pennsylvania lawmakers spent the 2019-20 legislative session passing laws that sent more people to prison and kept them there longer, a new report has found.

The 253-member General Assembly introduced 280 new bills, roughly a fifth of the1,500 pieces of legislation that get introduced during the two-year legislative session, resulting in 15 new offenses and suboffenses  passed with bipartisan support that imposed 26 new penalties, the research by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania concluded.

Those actions “created more opportunities for police and prosecutors to arrest, fine, and incarcerate people — all in the midst of a deadly pandemic and recession,” the report, which brands the General Assembly a “bipartisan criminal offense factory,” concludes.

Those votes also came “at a time when widespread protests against racist policing and police violence have underscored the need to reduce contact between police and communities and dramatically scale back our current system of mass incarceration,” the report reads. “Ending Pennsylvania’s public policy of mass incarceration begins with the Legislature.”

(ACLU-PA image)

And if lawmakers were actually enacting laws that broke new ground on crimefighting, that would be one thing. But as the new report makes clear, that’s not the case. When it was first enacted in 1972, the state’s current crimes code included just 282 offenses and sub-offenses, the report reads.

In the intervening four decades, the crimes code has exploded to include more than 1,500 offenses and sub-offenses, according to the ACLU-PA, with the majority of “new” offenses created by the General Assembly already covered by laws that existed in 1972.

And those new laws are disproportionately wielded against people of color, the research found. Lawmakers’ actions also adversely impact women and LGBTQ Pennsylvanians while doing nothing to address the underlying causes of crime.

“As lawmakers increase the scope of criminalized behavior, upgrade offenses from misdemeanors to felonies, adopt mandatory minimum sentences, and implement new sentencing enhancements, sentences grow longer and more punitive,” the report reads “Those convicted of duplicative offenses remain behind bars while these sentences run consecutively.”

As a result, “the threat of such extensive punishment for a single alleged act enables prosecutors to coerce individuals into pleading guilty without a trial — eroding any pretense that our criminal legal system in Pennsylvania is primarily concerned with meting out justice,” the report’s authors conclude.

(Image via The Philadelphia Gay News)

And once they’re released from prison, formerly incarcerated individuals continue to pay for their crimes in ways that are far less visible, though no less devastating, the report’s authors observe.

“In Pennsylvania, there are 879 collateral consequences for criminal convictions,” according to the report, which further makes clear that those with felony convictions face particularly severe sanctions, since “they can restrict access to government benefits, college financial aid, housing, employment, and prohibit someone from sitting on a jury, or running for public office.”

And every new sanction [makes] “it more difficult for individuals and communities to thrive,” the ACLU-PA notes.

The ACLU’s report highlights two pieces of reform legislation that passed during the 2019-20 session, one of which relaxed professional licensing requirements so that people with prior criminal convictions are not immediately excluded from obtaining a license to, for example, work as a barber, and earn a living. Another bill provides for an expungement of someone’s record if their case ends with a not guilty verdict. In cases where someone receives a pardon, their record is sealed for that offense.

But in the end, if lawmakers want to break the cycle, the report provides some bracingly simple advice.

“The first step is to simply stop introducing and passing legislation that adds new criminal offenses and penalties. In the case of our criminal code, more law still means less justice,” the report’s authors conclude.

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

Our Stuff.
For the third time, the Republican-controlled state House has approved a Down Syndrome abortion ban bill. Once again, Gov. Tom Wolf has vowed to veto it. Stephen Caruso has the details.

Using the powers that Pennsylvania voters gave to the Legislature during last month’s statewide referendum vote, the Pennsylvania House voted along party lines Tuesday evening to permanently end Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 disaster emergency, and the executive powers that come with it, Caruso also reports.

Some two-dozen state House Republicans are threatening to withhold almost $32 million in state funding for Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania Health System over its employee vaccine policy, Caruso further reports.

With his legacy at stake, Gov. Tom Wolf and his Democratic allies in the General Assembly are going all in on education funding. Meanwhile, a battle is brewing in the General Assembly over charter schools reform. Marley Parish has the details.

Pennsylvania rolled out its new unemployment compensation system on Tuesday, replacing an archaic system that led to misery for benefit recipients during the pandemic. Cassie Miller has the story.

Philadelphia has launched a COVID-19 vaccine lottery, with a grand prize of $50,000 as a way to encourage city residents to get vaccinated, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

Facing rising criticism and calls for his resignation, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, a Democrat, has rescinded a controversial policy halting plea deals for clients of a prominent Black lawyer who called his office racist, our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper report.

On our Commentary Page, opinion regular Bruce Ledewitz argues that Congress doesn’t need a Jan. 6 commission — it needs one to convince millions of Americans the election wasn’t stolen. And opinion regular Anwar Curtis pays tribute to Harrisburg’s education heroes of the pandemic.

Philadelphia City Hall (Image via pxHere.com)

Elsewhere.
The Inquirer
 takes a look at the complicated relationship that Philadelphia’s communities of color, which lost so much during the pandemic, have with reopening.
Pennsylvania parents are giving public schools high grades for their performance during the pandemic, the Tribune-Review reports, citing a new poll by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
Jobless Pennsylvanians are ‘livid’ over problems with the state’s new unemployment system — even as officials declare victory, SpotlightPA reports (via PennLive).
With Lancaster County’s mass vaccination site closing, LancasterOnline has tips on how area residents can get their second shot (paywall).
The Morning Call has its take on Tuesday’s House vote to repeal Gov. Tom Wolf’s disaster declaration.
The Luzerne County Council has accepted County Manager David Pedri’s resignation, the Citizens’ Voice reports (paywall).
A contractor at York County Prison used prisoners in videos, the York Daily Record reports, citing emails.

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:

Most activities are safe for young, unvaccinated kidsWHYY-FM reports.
Faced with a federal probe, employees at PSERS have backtracked on its disclosure that staffers were on both sides of real estate dealings,’ Spotlight PA also reports (via WITF-FM).
Officials at Washington Health System in SWPA are encouraging local residents to get vaccinated, the Observer-Reporter reports.
Talking Points Memo considers what to do about a problem like Joe Manchin.

What Goes On.
The House and Senate both come in at 11 a.m. today. Here’s a look at the day’s events and committee schedule.
9:30 a.m, 205 Ryan: House Finance Committee
9:30 a.m., G50 Irvis: House Health Committee
10 a.m, Soldiers & Sailors Grove: Rally for veterans’ bills.
10 a.m, Media Center: Newser on recognizing girls’ wrestling in the state.
10 a..m, 515 Irvis North: House Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee
10 a.m, B31 Main Capitol: House Commerce Committee
10 a.m, 60EW: House Insurance Committee
10 a.m., 523 Irvis South: House State Government Committee
11 a.m., Capitol Steps: Gift ban rally
Call of the Chair, 140 Main Capitol: House Appropriations Committee

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
8 a.m.: 
Breakfast for Rep. Darisha Parker
8 a.m.: 
Breakfast for Rep. Perry Warren
8 a.m.: 
Breakfast for Rep. Josh Kail
6 p.m.: 
Reception for Sen. Mike Regan
Ride the circuit, and give at the max, and you’re out an entirely preposterous $11,000 today.

WolfWatch.
Gov. Tom Wolf 
holds a 2 p.m. newser at a Harrisburg branch YMCA where he’ll talk about protecting voting rights.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to Brendan Kinney at CBS-21 in Harrisburg and Mike Manzo, of Triad Strategies, both of whom celebrate today. Congratulations, folks. Enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation.
I’m starting the morning with this massive playlist of Northern Soul floor-stompersBecause sometimes you need a blast of soul, mod, and ska to get your workday started right.

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Sigh. Tampa eliminated Carolina in Game 5 of their Central Division playoff series, winning 2-0 on Tuesday night. Thanks from this lifelong WhalerCanes fan to the ‘Canes for an amazing season. It’s off to rooting for Montreal to take it all this year.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.

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