Reflections on Reentry Court

In the Sheller Center’s Federal Reentry Court clinic, supervised by attorney Maya Sosnov, students work with people who are returning from incarceration. Here are some excerpts from students’ comments about their experiences.

Brian Mahoney, on what students actually do:

Law students in the Reentry Court help relieve post-incarceration poverty. They assist participants to restore their driving privileges, reduce outstanding debt, establish affordable payment plans, combat identity fraud, and to challenge other legal barriers … Students also help restore participant dignity by forming meaningful relationships with participants and by advocating vigorously for their rights in private and public forums. You won’t save the world as a student advocate in the Reentry Program, but you will make a meaningful difference.

Stefanie Sherr, on a comment from a client:

One experience really stood out to me when I was helping one of the participants with an identity theft issue, and things were a bit frustrating and slow moving.  This  participant sent me a text message about how much he really appreciated my help, and I was really happy to be able to help him.

Nina del Valle, on trust:

New participants on their first day are asked to come up to a podium and speak to the judge. The last time this occurred for the participants was when they were being sentenced. Participants are often hesitant to trust the reentry team when they tell them that we are here to support their successful return into the community. Over time, you see the changes in the participants because … through our actions participants see that there can be another side to the criminal justice system that is here to help.

Sarah Figorski, on the obstacles facing returning citizens:

This experience has completely opened my eyes to the many legal roadblocks and personal setbacks that stand in a person’s way when reentering back into society. I have personally assisted clients in working through various issues in traffic court. I have handled trials, worked out agreements with the District Attorney, opened up old cases for appeal, and reduced ticket prices. I have assisted other clients with debt issues by performing extensive research for them to help them understand complicated issues that they would have otherwise been left to deal with on their own.

TJ Denley on the clients and on the significance of the experience:

I have done intakes and assessments, filed motions, developed strategy, and even argued in court for my client. I have met some amazing clients, men who want to change their life, so that instead of living the nightmare, they can begin to live the dream…. The clinical has given me a wider perspective on the criminal justice system, as well as more confidence in my ability to represent my clients.

And Laurel Kandianis on what matters:

The work of social justice does not always entail speaking to a large crowd or arguing in front of the Supreme Court… Sometimes it is about working to correct the small inequities unnoticed by the people who do not suffer them. In Reentry Court Clinic, my work has consisted of attempting to push back against these small inequities. I have spent most of my time in traffic court and on the phone with various Pennsylvania bureaucracies, attempting to weave through the maze of obstacles between my clients and their licenses.

Not having a license can cripple a person’s ability to re-integrate back into society after release from incarceration….  Working to help clients regain their licenses is not high-profile, ground-breaking work. But it is for that reason, I’ve come to believe, that the work is important.

 

A twofer: Sheller Center students help bring about criminal justice reforms

“Advocates have been pleading with the Philadelphia court system to end its policy of keeping 30 percent of all posted bail — even when a defendant is acquitted,” the Inquirer noted last week. And, the article reported, the advocacy has finally succeeded: the courts have agreed to stop the practice.

Among the advocates who helped make it happen were John Farrell, Paige Joki, and Adorah Nworah, law students in the Center’s Justice Lab. Their 2017 report, The Cost of Buying Freedom: Strategies for Cash Bail Reform and Eliminating Systemic Injustice, written on behalf of Redeemed PA, took a close look at Philadelphia’s bail system. What they found was that a person charged with a crime “must pay a fee in order to pay for their freedom regardless of guilt or charge withdrawal. Thus, a person can be found innocent of a crime but be in jail for months and forced to pay the state for the privilege of having been wrongly accused.” That shocking practice is now history.

Also last week, the courts eliminated a policy that allowed for the automatic detention of people on probation who are charged with violating probation conditions or committing new offenses. More than half of those in jail in Philadelphia are there because of these “detainers,” which are often applied regardless of the severity of the alleged violation. This problem was the focus of advocacy led by the Defender Association of Philadelphia and supported by another Sheller Center team – Tracey Johnson, Liz Casey, and Liam Thomas. The implications of the change aren’t yet completely clear, but it’s a big step forward. Congratulations to the students and to Prof. Colleen Shanahan, who supervised their work.

Guest post: Nick Kato on #DebtFreeJustice

Nick Kato (2L) and Prof. Colleen Shanahan recently attended #DebtFreeJustice, a national meeting on juvenile fines and fees. Nick is part of a Justice Lab team working with the Juvenile Law Center on juvenile costs. He shares his impressions below. For more on the meeting and the issues, visit BerkeleyLaw.

Prof. Shanahan is second from left, and Nick Kato is in the back row, left of center. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Law School.

In February, I attended a national convening on juvenile fines and fees at Berkeley Law School. Advocates from across the country discussed the disparate impact of court-imposed fines and fees, and how burdensome costs defeat the juvenile justice system’s rehabilitative goals. As part of a nascent but dedicated movement, advocates explored how to build off successful reforms in Philadelphia and California, including Philadelphia’s decision to stop charging parents for the cost of their children’s incarceration.

The convening was especially valuable to me as a student because it provided a glimpse into the decision-making process for various advocacy options, ranging from impact litigation to community organizing and impact litigation. Being a part of the convening left me optimistic that advocates around the country can support each other’s efforts to create a more just and rehabilitative juvenile justice system.

Our unfair system of cash bail

The time has come to end the use of cash bail in Pennsylvania, says The Cost of Buying Freedom: Strategies for Cash Bail Reform and Eliminating Systemic Injustice, a new report from the Sheller Center’s Justice Lab and Redeemed PA, a community organization.

According to the report, the cash bail system discriminates on the basis of poverty, not dangerousness (as one interviewee noted, “Poor folks stay in jail and rich folks don’t”). And the result, for people who cannot afford even low bail, is not just loss of liberty; pretrial detention also makes it harder for them to assist in their defense, thus unfairly increasing the likelihood of conviction.

According to the report, the cost of keeping people in jail who don’t need to be there runs into the millions of dollars each year. Cash bail doesn’t accomplish its goal, since the likelihood that a defendant will return to court is not enhanced by the setting of a high bail figure. The system is also unnecessary: under state law, the most dangerous defendants can be detained without bail in any event. (And there’s other strange stuff; did you know, for example, that you’ll forfeit a percentage of your bail even if you’re found not guilty?)

Effective alternatives, including validated risk assessment tools and innovative supervision programs, are now in use in cities and counties around the country.  Pennsylvania should follow the lead of those jurisdictions, say the report’s authors — students Adorah Nworah, Paige Joki, and John Farrell.

Discussions about cash bail are already underway in Philadelphia, which — as part of its criminal justice reform plan — has undertaken to “establish a robust range of alternatives to cash bail based on risk level.” And both candidates for District Attorney have been addressing the subject; Beth Grossman (R) reportedly supports the continued use of cash bail, while Larry Krasner (D) states that he will implement alternatives for those charged with nonviolent offenses. Hopefully, the findings of the report will contribute to these discussions — in Philadelphia and statewide.

Ripple effects from “advocacy in action”

We’ve shared lots of information about the Justice Lab effort that, in collaboration with many partners, led the City to decide to stop charging parents for the costs of their child’s incarceration. But Monday’s panel discussion about this example of “advocacy in action” brought out an additional point: social justice efforts can have a ripple effect.

L to R: Prof. Colleen Shanahan, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa, parent Kameelah Davis-Spears, student Wesley Stevenson, YSRP Co-Director Lauren Fine, and students Kelsey Grimes and Sela Cowger. Photo by Abraham Gutman.

Thus, the fact that City Council, the Department of Human Services, the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, and Temple law students were able – despite their differing roles — to cooperate in achieving this policy change had implications beyond the issue of incarceration costs. In a sometimes fractious political environment, “it showed,” DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa said, “that we can work together.”

Likewise, Philadelphia’s decision to stop charging parents may have implications for other counties, since the State is now considering revising statewide guidance on the issue.

And there’s more: the discussion is also no longer just about charging parents of incarcerated children. City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson stated he’s “in it for the long haul” of questioning the array of fines and fees that further impoverish people whose incomes are already too low.

It’s an encouraging set of ripples. And it was encouraging, too, to hear Councilman Johnson say that often in government, “the best common sense comes from the activists.”

Guest post: crime and policing

Guest blogger and Temple Law student Samantha Ramagano shares her thoughts on the second panel in our “Making Sense of the Legal Headlines” series.

In January, former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated that the Department of Justice investigation of the Chicago Police Department had found “a pattern or practice of the use of excessive force” in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  Only a little more than a month later, new Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DOJ would be scaling back on investigations of police departments.

This policy shift seemed like a step backwards for civil rights and the Department’s push to end racial discrimination and the use of excessive force by police department nationwide. (A history of DOJ’s work in this area is here.) Not knowing how the new administration would affect efforts at reforming policing in my own community of Philadelphia, I found myself looking for answers at the Sheller Center’s “Crime and Policing” panel discussion last week.

The message I took away from the event was a hopeful, albeit complicated one: real reform should not focus on policing alone, but on the entire criminal justice system. Because reform requires a holistic approach, potentially harmful policy decisions and rhetoric at the federal level will not derail the process, although they could slow it down.

Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Ramsey summed it up well when he said that the focus of reform cannot be on policing alone. While that may be the aspect of criminal justice reform that gets the most media scrutiny, there are other aspects of the system that are just as much in need of attention.

Luckily, these are areas in which we, the public, can make a real difference.  For example, Meg Reiss, from the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, noted that prosecutors at the local level are publicly elected officials, so paying attention to these elections is extremely important, as well as continuing to hold these officials accountable between election cycles. The point is, not all hope is lost and while the road may be long, a more holistic approach to criminal justice reform will pay off in the long run, as long as we are all willing to put in the work.

Guest post: moving forward on criminal justice reform

Guest blogger Liza B. Fleming, a student at Temple Law, shares her reflections on last week’s Sheller-Center-sponsored panel on crime and policing (the second in our “Making Sense of the Legal Headlines” series).

“We need to be able to keep moving forward,” said Charles Ramsey, discussing police and criminal justice reform under the Trump administration. The Sheller Center panel, “Understanding the Headlines: Crime and Policing,” featured Ramsey, former Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner and co-Chair of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing; former prosecutor Meg Reiss, now leading the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and Lauren Ouziel, former federal prosecutor and Temple Law professor.

Professor Ouziel began by outlining some Obama administration criminal justice reform themes and those we can expect to see from the Trump administration. During the Obama administration, she explained, the government lowered penalties, including reducing crack cocaine penalties. Additionally, Justice Department directives encouraged prosecutors to effectuate reforms through charging discretion. Finally, successful policing reforms included an increase in pattern-and-practice investigations of police departments. By contrast, under the Trump administration, she noted that we expect to see less interest in charging and sentencing reform; a possible desire to enforce federal laws in states with legalized marijuana; and a decrease in investigations of police departments

The shift from the Obama to the Trump administration will set back the clock on criminal justice reform. “The emphasis on reform is going to be impacted by the current Justice Department,” Charles Ramsey conceded. But it became clear that the urgency of reform is not a product of the newly elected Trump administration; there have always been areas for potential reform. And with less interest in reform in the White House, change likely will occur on the local level. Meg Reiss noted, “There is so much opportunity with your local prosecutor to really drive change.” She explained that private funding and private organizations that support criminal justice would drive the progress. Thus, I was left with a hopeful message that even though the federal government will not be supporting reform, both the public and local organizations are finding a role in criminal justice reform. With that, we can keep moving forward.

Liza has also put together a set of links for further reading.

 

 

 

Making sense of the legal headlines

If you’re confused about the legal issues in the headlines these days, you’re not alone; it’s complex stuff, and there’s a lot of it. In an upcoming series of panel discussions organized by the Sheller Center, law faculty and others will sort through the confusion in several key areas, with the goal of clarifying what the law says now, what changes are proposed, and where the controversies are. These discussions are open to the Law School, the University, and the community.

Dates and topics are: Border Security and Interior Enforcement, 3/28; Crime and Policing, 4/3; The Refugee and Travel Bans, 4/10; and Climate Change and Federal Policy, 4/18. All sessions are from noon to 1:00, in Klein Hall (the main Law School Building) K1D.  More information is here, together with an opportunity to RSVP (not required, but helpful). Please share the information with anyone who you think might be interested. We hope to see you!

Social justice spotlight: Wesley Stevenson

For our “Social justice spotlight” series, we ask students who participate in Sheller Center clinics and programs to talk a bit about their experience.  This week, we hear from Wes Stevenson, a third-year law student.

Over the past year, I’ve been working with the Sheller Center’s Justice Lab Clinic to end the City of Philadelphia’s practice of charging parents for their children’s incarceration costs.  During that time, every person I’ve talked to about the issue has expressed the same outrage and confusion I felt when I first learned this was happening.  Yes, this really happens, and it happens all across the nation.

This work is critical because the practice is fundamentally unjust, it hurts families during a critical time, and it has no real financial benefit for the City. And it has been going on for a long time.  Our work has been about ending the practice so no more families face these support orders.  But it has also been about holding the City accountable, for imposing these costs on working families for years, and ensuring that when the practice does end, it ends for good.

Philadelphia City Council has scheduled a hearing on the practice for March 3, 2017, at 11:00 a.m., in the Council chamber at City Hall.  I am grateful for the opportunity to testify at that hearing, alongside affected parents and advocates, and I’m hopeful that by the time I graduate, these collections will have officially stopped.

“First lockup, then debt”: Philly practice of charging parents for their children’s incarceration hits the news

Earlier this year, Justice Lab students Wesley Stevenson, Kelsey Grimes, and Sela Cowger, in collaboration with the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, began to investigate Philadelphia’s practice of billing families for the cost of incarcerating their children. The students’ efforts caught the attention of the Inquirer, which ran an in-depth article on the practice today, with quotes from student Wes Stevenson and Clinical Professor Colleen Shanahan.

Besides noting the hardship imposed on Philadelphia households, the article points out that the city’s practice reflects a national pattern in which juvenile justice systems are increasingly passing on their costs to families already living in poverty.

After receiving the Justice Lab analysis and working with the students since last spring, City officials told the Inquirer that they want to end the practice of billing parents, and are in discussions with the state Department of Human Services.  (Meanwhile, the private attorney who does the collections under a contract with the City told the paper that being billed for their children’s incarceration can actually help families, “because once the child‐support payments end, it’s like getting ‘a raise.’” )

For the full article, click here.