New lead-paint bills reflect students’ proposals

2,615: that’s how many Philadelphia children show elevated lead levels (and even that may be an undercount, since Philly uses a less stringent measure than that used by other cities and the CDC).  That puts us far ahead of Flint, Michigan, in terms of the number of children at risk of serious health problems.

In an op-ed last spring, Justice Lab students Liz Torres, Tony Sierzega, and Chris Lin summarized their research on lead poisoning in Philly, conducted in partnership with Community Legal Services. The students offered four common-sense recommendations for action.

Now, City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown has introduced a package of bills that would implement several of those recommendations — including an expansion of lead-safe requirements to rental apartments generally, not just those housing children age six or younger. Councilwoman Brown is in search of co-sponsors. And we’re excited about the possibility that the students’ work will help produce real results for Philly’s kids.

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.

Center’s report on affordable housing goes national

Danger of the Opt Out: Strategies for Preserving Section 8 Project-Based Housing in Philadelphiaa report prepared earlier this year by Justice Lab students Rita Burns, Sara Mohamed and Andrew Newstein for Community Legal Services, has been adapted for publication in the next issue of the American Bar Association’s Journal of Affordable Housing and Community Development Law.  

According to the report, Philadelphia is at risk of losing significant numbers of affordable housing units as landlords “opt out” of the federal Section 8 program. The report recommends steps that the city should take in order to preserve as much affordable housing as possible.

Prof. Colleen Shanahan, director of Justice Lab, notes: “Cities around the country are facing affordable housing challenges. This article will allow attorneys, advocates, and policymakers around the country to learn from the Justice Lab student team’s data analysis and proposed solutions for Philadelphia.”

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.

A national award

 

For their successful effort to end Philadelphia’s practice of billing parents for cost of their child’s incarceration, Prof. Colleen Shanahan and her students have received the 2017 Clinical Legal Education Association Award for Excellence in a Public Interest Case or Project. The “Double Punishment” project, conducted by Justice Lab on behalf of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, was chosen through a competitive process involving clinical work from across the country.

Prof. Shanahan accepted the award at the national meeting of the Clinical Section of the Association of American Law Schools in Denver this week. Hundreds of clinicians were present at the ceremony, which recognized Justice Lab and the Sheller Center. Congratulations to Prof. Shanahan, her students, and everyone who worked on this effort!

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.”

A victory for families

Kameelah Davis-Spears, a Philadelphia parent, was stunned when her child was sent to a juvenile delinquency facility as the result of a fight in school. She got a second shock when, after his return home, she got a summons — for child support.

It turned out that the “child support” was money that she was going to have to pay the City to cover the cost of her son’s incarceration. Upset, she asked the City’s lawyer whether she should get legal advice. His reply, she said, made clear to her that she had better just start paying.

Fast forward through months of garnished wages, which put a hole in the family’s already-inadequate budget, to yesterday’s hearing before a committee of City Council. The hearing was prompted by the release of Double Punishment, a report by Justice Lab students Wesley Stevenson (3L), Kelsey Grimes (3L), and Sela Cowger (3L). With help from Prof. Colleen Shanahan, the students had conducted a months-long investigation on behalf of their client, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project.

Wes, Ms. Davis-Spears, Lauren Fine of YSRP, and others testified before a crowd of parents, child advocates, City officials, social service personnel, Sheller Center supporters (including Steve and Sandy Sheller), and others. Council members, who clearly saw the practice as unjust, expressed appreciation for the students’ work.

And the hearing brought one more surprise: an announcement by Cynthia Figueroa, Commissioner of the City’s Department of Human Services, that the City will put an end to the practice. As the witnesses and Council members pointed out, that announcement is only a first step; making sure that collection efforts actually stop will take work. But it’s a victory — and, in an era in which fines, fees, and forfeitures are exacting double and triple punishment from poor families, it’s national (as well as local) news.

At the end of a long day, Prof. Shanahan delivered her own verdict: “I’m so, so proud of our students.” So are all of us at the Sheller Center.

City Council hearing this week on charging parents for their child’s incarceration

On Friday, March 3, 2017 at 1:00 p.m. (note new time), Councilman Kenyatta Johnson is coordinating a hearing on the impact of fines and fees levied by the juvenile justice system on Philadelphia youth and their families.  The hearing will be at City Hall, in the Council’s main chamber, Room 400.  We hope you will join us.

This hearing will be focused on the City’s practice of charging parents for the cost of their child’s incarceration.  Affected parents, advocates, and the City’s Department of Human Services are scheduled to testify.  The practice of charging parents for the child’s cost of confinement has been occurring in Philadelphia since the 1990s, with little oversight, and acts as a second punishment for children and families.  Double Punishment, a report by Justice Lab and the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, contains more information on the practice and its harm to families.

If you or your organization know of parents affected by the City’s practice of charging parents for their children’s incarceration costs and would like to submit their stories to be part of the record, please reach out to us.  It is also possible to have additional parents testify in-person if we can connect with those parents quickly.  If you have any questions, please contact Wes Stevenson at Wesley.stevenson@temple.edu.