Friday, July 09, 2010

Prison Reform on Life Support

The effort to reform Pennsylvania's sentencing structures and alleviate its overcrowded prisons hangs on by a thread.

As a recap, Pennsylvania is in the process of building four new prisons by 2013. The construction costs alone will be more than $800 million, and the annual costs to maintain them will be $50 million each.

To relieve the current situation, the commonwealth has sent 2,000 prisoners to Michigan and Virginia, where they have beds available. The secretary of the Department of Corrections here says that the new prisons will be filled soon after they open, based on current projections.

Last month, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a package of three bills sponsored by Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery County) that would reform sentencing guidelines (SB 1145), make it possible for certain non-violent offenders to leave prison early, based on certain conditions (SB 1161), and create alternatives for technical parole violators, parolees who violate parole but don't commit a new crime (SB 1275).

In the last few years, 20 states have reduced their prison populations by setting up similar structures, and those states, by and large, have not seen an increase in crime. Why not Pennsylvania?

The House Judiciary Committee scheduled SB 1161 for a vote on June 23, as Chairman Thomas Caltagirone (D-Berks County) has been a vocal supporter of reform and relief to the corrections system. The plan was to amend the bill to add pieces of the other two bills into it. However, an error in drafting the amendment forced the committee to hold the bill.

SB 1161 was rescheduled for June 29. At that meeting, Dauphin County District Attorney Edward Marsico, who is president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, and a lobbyist for the Attorney General's office were given 40 minutes to address the committee and lay out their concerns with the bill. The concerns of the DAs and the AG lit a fuse under some reps, who piled on and offered their own problems with the bill. Lobbyists for the Department of Corrections and for the Board of Probation and Parole were also given a few minutes to speak. (DOC supports the reform, saying it could save us at least $60 million per year, and P&P is conditionally unopposed, with some minor changes.)

As a result of that ruckus, SB 1161 was held over again. Later that week, the legislature finished the 10-11 state budget, and legislators beat feet out of town.

The next opportunity for the House Judiciary Committee to consider this legislation will be after Labor Day, when both chambers return for a few weeks of session before Election Day. If the bill is amended, as expected, passes out of committee, and finds its way through the House, it will still have to go back to the Senate to vote on what's known as concurrence, when a chamber takes up a bill that it already passed but was altered by the other chamber.

I'm worried that prison reform may be dead for this year and maybe the next four years. This legislative session officially ends in November, and there will be only a few more weeks of session. A House staffer who is close to the action is convinced they can get it done. I hope he's right, and I'm wrong.

Andy in Harrisburg

Labels: , ,

Friday, July 02, 2010

PA House on Teen Sex: Incarcerate, Not Educate???

Earlier this week, the state House passed legislation, House Bill 2189, to create a new crime called "sexting." Sexting is when someone, often a teenager (although apparently senior citizens and pro athletes are doing it, too), sends photos of him- or herself in various stages of undress or engaged in sexual activity to another person or persons via electronic communication. HB 2189 makes it a misdemeanor for a minor to engage in sexting if the photos involve nudity and were sent for the purpose of sexual stimulation. It's a summary offense if the photo was sent to one other person and the sender had a reason to believe that the recipient wanted to receive the photo, e.g. the teenage couple sharing pics with each other.

Under this bill, the transmission or dissemination of photos of a minor engaged in sex acts, including transmitting a photo of one's self, could still be prosecuted under the felony child pornography statute.

Look, let's face it, teenagers are going to dumb things. They're at an age where they are increasingly aware of their sexuality, and, at the same time, their brains are at a stage of development where they don't yet have the ability to stop irrational behavior 100% of the time.

You show me an adult who didn't do foolish things as a teen, and I'll show you an adult with amnesia.

HB 2189 is simply wrong-headed. Turning our kids into criminals for their clumsy behavior is cruel. Addressing teen misbehavior is a job for parents and educators, not prosecutors.

And the bill is based on the false premise, stoked by some reps and district attorneys, that all sexting by minors is currently a felony, a point that is repeated, ad nauseum, by the media. In fact, if the photos only involve nudity and the production and distribution of the photos is consensual, it's protected expression under the First Amendment.

Fittingly, there is a bill to ensure that teen sexuality is addressed in a constructive fashion. House Bill 1163, the Healthy Youth Act, would set minimum standards on sex education for Pennsylvania's public schools. HB 1163 would guarantee that students receive medically-accurate sex ed. The curricula that would pass muster under this bill would emphasize that abstinence is the only 100% effective of way to stop pregnancy and the transmission of STDs and would teach kids science-based information about contraception.

House Bill 1163 is neatly tucked away in the House Appropriations Committee, and many observers think that's exactly where it's going to stay because the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Senator Jeffrey Piccola, has said that he won't consider the bill.

So to recap, the state House has passed a bill to turn kids into criminals for their clumsy sexual behavior and is simultaneously burying a bill to constructively teach kids about their sexuality, with the Senate Education Committee chairman as an accomplice.

In a word, this is a disgrace.

Andy in Harrisburg

(The poster above comes from a series of hilarious sex ed posters posted on Huffington Post earlier this week.)

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, July 01, 2010

I'm Just a Bill to Ban the Shackling of Pregnant Inmates

On Tuesday, the state House passed a bill to ban shackling of inmates during childbirth in the commonwealth's prisons and in county jails. The state Senate previously passed the legislation, so it heads to Governor Rendell for his signature, which is expected.

The reaction we usually get when we talk about this bill is shock that it's even necessary, but Pennsylvania would become only the eighth state to ban this cruel practice by statute. A few states also ban it by policy, as does the federal Bureau of Prisons and the federal Marshalls Service.

Hopefully you don't need this blog post to convince you why this bill is needed. To read our arguments, you can check out our press release after Tuesday's vote and also see the memos we submitted in support of the bill at our legislation page.

What I really want to write about is the process on how this happened. Numerous legislators from both parties and from both chambers played a role in getting SB 1074 to the governor's desk. If any one of them had balked, the bill would have died. It's very difficult to get legislation passed, even on a slam dunk issue like this one.

Consider the impact of these legislators:

Senator Daylin Leach. Senator Leach is the primary sponsor of SB 1074 and advocated for his bill. That should be a given, but often legislators introduce legislation but don't lobby for it. Senator Leach did that.

Senator Stewart Greenleaf. Senator Greenleaf is the powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Leach is the Democratic minority chairman of that committee.) Like all chairmen, Greenleaf makes decisions about what bills will be considered by the committee. When Leach asked Greenleaf to consider SB 1074, Greenleaf was willing to do that.

Rep. Thomas Caltagirone. Rep. Caltagirone is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and ensured that the bill got out of his committee. In addition, when Caltagirone became concerned that the bill might not get a vote in the House, he amended the language into another bill in his committee. That set off a chain of events that got the bill on the House floor.

Rep. Babette Josephs. Rep. Josephs personally advocated with House leadership to get SB 1074 before the full House. Two days later, it was on the House floor. (Full disclosure, Rep. Josephs is a member of the board of our Greater Philadelphia chapter.)

Senator Dominic Pileggi and Rep. Todd Eachus. The majority leaders of their respective chambers saw to it that the bill did get a vote before their members.

Like a clock missing a gear, if any one of these steps had not occurred, the bill would have stopped.

For the record, if this bill is signed by the governor, it will be the first bill in the 2009-10 session supported by the ACLU of PA that has become law. For now, no bill we oppose has become law. This classic Schoolhouse Rock cartoon illustrates why that is.

Andy in Harrisburg

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,