Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Corbett admin moves in right direction on prisons

Lately, we've been doing a lot of complaining around here. When our state government is trying to undermine our rights in various and increasingly heinous ways, we can't help but complain. I actually heard at the state capitol a few weeks ago members of the House are complaining about the criticism they're taking. (Memo to the state House: There's a simple way to avoid criticism. Don't pass dumb bills. Or resolutions.)

That said, we are willing to give credit and heap praise where it is due. It is due to Governor Corbett and his administration, particularly Secretary John Wetzel, the head of the Department of Corrections (DOC), for what appears to be a genuine dedication to addressing overincarceration in the commonwealth.

Quick recap: Pennsylvania's state prisons are woefully overcrowded, to the point that two years ago several thousand inmates were exported to Virginia and Michigan. Other states are reducing inmate population and closing prisons. We're building several new ones, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

This week, Secretary Wetzel took center stage before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Wetzel reiterated the administration's support for Senate Bill 100, a bill to expand access to numerous alternative sentencing programs and attempts to make re-entry programs more effective. Wetzel told the committee that the DOC projects that the inmate population will start shrinking, starting next year, but that passage of SB 100 is "essential."

SB 100 has passed the Senate and is currently in the House Judiciary Committee. Over the last two sessions, the House has been the hurdle to more reform, and it's been backed up by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and, especially, the Office of the Attorney General, including when it was occupied by Tom Corbett. The challenges in the state House have been bipartisan, as both Republicans and Democrats grasp desperately to the old, ineffective ways of addressing criminal justice.

Wetzel also told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the Recidivism Risk Reduction Initiative, which is sometimes called "good time" or "earned time," needs revised to remove the power of the district attorney and the defendant to veto the defendant's participation. Wetzel said that only five percent of eligible defendants actually participate in RRRI, a program that allows certain inmates to serve less than the minimum sentence if he or she completes designated rehabilitation and educational programs.

Wetzel's appearance before the committee came just a week after the DOC announced that the privatization of state prisons is off the table. The ACLU of Pennsylvania opposes private prisons due to the lack of public oversight and transparency in those institutions.

Finally, last month the Corbett administration announced the formation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a committee of stakeholders that will analyze the commonwealth's prison costs and ways to reduce them. As we've seen in other states, the solutions are out there. If this committee gives the governor political cover to implement real reform, that's a good thing.

Here at civil liberties headquarters, we call them the way we see them. If the government screws up, we have no qualms with saying it. On ending Pennsylvania's addiction to overincarceration, Governor Corbett is leading. We applaud him for it.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The War on Poor Black Women

African-American women make up only 12 percent of the female population in the U.S., but now comprise more than 50 percent of the female prison population in the U.S. This fact has led many to believe that what started as the “war on drugs” has quickly become the “war on poor black women.”
The number of women incarcerated for drug-related crimes increased by 433 percent between 1986 and 1991. But for African-American women it rose an astounding 828 percent, while the increase for white women was 241 percent, and for Latina women a 328 percent increase.

The causes of the epidemic of imprisonment of young black girls are rooted in the national zero tolerance rules, the war on drugs, policies and a juvenile justice system that treats women of color differently.
The crackdown on drug-related crimes was sold to the American public as the answer to the escalating levels of violent crime (mostly by men), but has subsequently affected women, and disproportionately women of color. Most women caught up in the drug trade play minor roles, but fall prey to the over-punitive policing and sentencing policies.

Due to Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, judges are not allowed to consider the individual and unique circumstances of a case. Even a woman with no prior offenses or with clear financial responsibility for a family, the judge is required to give a minimum sentence to those found guilty.

Experts argue that the intersection of race, class and gender puts low-income women of color, especially African-American women, in “triple jeopardy” and contributes to their disproportionate incarceration. 
Incarcerating women exacerbates problems that their families must deal with in their absence. Investing public funds in effective drug treatment and gender-sensitive services to help women live a prison-free life that allows them to continue to support their families makes far more sense than incarceration both in terms of long-term community health as well as from an economic stand point – it costs far less to pay for drug treatment than incarceration.

 The Women’s Prison Association’s “matrix” approach serves as a model for assisting women who might otherwise face incarceration stabilize themselves and their families.  WPA emphasizes the importance of understanding how poverty, trauma and victimization, and bad choices can combine to propel women into substance abuse and criminal involvement.  Successfully serving these women will mean giving access to coordinated services that address these multiple issues simultaneously. Good public policy can reduce trauma to women and families while reducing the need to spend scarce public dollars.

*Statistics for this post were obtained from The Institute on Women and Criminal Justice

Leah Wright is a high school student at Mastery Charter School – Lenfest Campus
Katherine Bisanz is a graduate student in Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Yes, Virginia, there is a state more demeaning to women than you

A mock letter to the people of Virginia.

Dear Virginia, (CC: outraged left wing media)

Your little legislature was wrong. There is a state more demeaning to women than you. Up here across the Mason Dixon line, we’ve managed to come up with a forced ultrasound bill more cruel and medically unnecessary than yours! (It was tough, I’ll be honest.)

If our bill becomes law, women will have to wait at least 24 hours after their ultrasound before an abortion, no matter how far away they live from the provider. And here in Pennsylvania, 113 of the 203 elected state Representatives have signed on to our ultrasound bill. That’s more than your twelve by a long shot!

Our bill FORCES the doctor to turn the ultrasound screen towards the woman’s face. Don’t worry – we avoided constitutional meddling by “allowing her” to look away. I heard you only give ‘the opportunity’ to view the ultrasound image. LAME!

LOVE the “free ultrasound providers” bit! We did that, too, so now we can funnel women to those so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” where they can be fed state-funded, unregulated misinformation. We don’t even require that ultrasound providers have any training!

Oh, and you’ll love the part about the printouts – listen to this. We’re going to make the woman take TWO prints with her – one for her scrapbook, and the other one SHE has to bring to the doctor performing the abortion (if she hasn’t been shamed out of it at this point! LOL).

And come on now, only civil penalties? Our bill includes civil and criminal penalties for doctors and patients who dare defy our legislating of medicine.

Nice try, Virginia. But you’ve got nothin’ on Pennsylvania.

Your partner in crime,

Virtue, Liberty and Independence (Unless you’re a woman)

You’ve probably heard about the Virginia ultrasound bill recently, but did you realize Pennsylvania has a bill pending that’s even worse? The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is poised to take up HB1077, the disingenuously titled “Women’s Right to Know Act”. Are you ready to stop the cruel, demeaning attacks on women in Pennsylvania? Sign the petition and urge your representative to vote NO on HB 1077 and stop this demeaning and unnecessary bill from becoming law in Pennsylvania.

You can also call your state representative right now. Find his or her phone number with our "find your legislator" tool.

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Friday, February 17, 2012

The Unique Voice of Octavia Butler (Reflections on Black History)

My first encounter with Octavia Butler was in a college science fiction course. Along with Dune, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Return of the King, and The Handmaid’s Tale, our syllabus included Wild Seed. I can’t say I was excited to read a strange book by an author I’d never heard of, but that changed once I began. Wild Seed is the first work of fantasy I encountered that diverged from the traditions of Tolkein and English fairytale, drawing inspiration instead from native African mythology.

For many fans of science fiction and fantasy, Butler (who died in 2006) represents a revelation, a first venture into something truly new and different. Speculative fiction as a genre is overwhelmingly white and European, chock full of noble savages and magical negros. Butler, who fought through dyslexia and rejection to journey from science fiction fan to award-winning author, brought the voice of the African American and the traditions of her African heritage.

Like all truly great speculative fiction, Butler’s work uses imaginary worlds to make us think and reflect on our own. Through her work, she confronts great moral questions including slavery, gender, religion, addiction, class inequality, tyranny, race, and the relationship of humans to their environment and to other species.  Depending on the work, these confrontations may be metaphorical or very direct. A central theme of Wild Seed, for instance, is the way two god-like immortals go about relating to mortal humans – one nurturing, the other tyrannical – and the consequences of their actions. Butler rarely seeks easy answers or absolutes – like many who really understand human nature, she is more interested to explore gray areas. Kindred, probably her best-known work, employs time travel as a device to confront U.S. slavery head-on, as an African American woman is transported from the 1970s to meet her ancestors in early nineteenth century Maryland.

Octavia Butler is often forgotten, which is tragic. Perhaps she is a victim of her genre, which—wild wildly popular, if TV and movies are any indication—is ignored by many critics and historians. Even more tragic, however, is that when she is mentioned, it is rarely acknowledged that she was a lesbian. Even some of her biggest fans are surprised to learn To be fair, she was never outspoken about her orientation, though she never hid it, either. Themes of gender ambiguity are rampant in her work.

Octavia Butler once described herself as “a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist always, a Black, a quiet egoist, a former Baptist, and an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.” Though I profile her here as a great figure in Black history, I prefer The Washington Post’s description: “One of the finest voices in fiction, period.”

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Why would someone sue in FAVOR of discrimination??

Conshohocken Borough in Montgomery County is one of two dozen municipalities across Pennsylvania that have adopted local non-discrimination laws to protect LGBT people. Conshohocken's law, passed last April, protects LGBT residents from being fired, evicted, or kicked out of a business because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Sounds like a good thing, right?

Apparently, not everyone agrees. Anti-LGBT activists have sued the Borough in an attempt to invalidate the new law. On Friday, February 17, the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas will hear argument on the Borough’s motion to dismiss the complaint. 

If you can, please come watch the court argument to show your support for the Borough and LGBT equality. The argument will be at 9:00 AM on February 17 at the Montgomery County Courthouse, Court Room “A”, 2 E. Airy St., Norristown, PA 19401, before Judge Bernard A. Moore. The courthouse is an easy walk from the Norristown Transportation Center.

Please be respectful of the court proceedings and courthouse rules. Arrive well ahead of time so you can get through security, obey courthouse rules about cameras and recording, do not bring signs into the courtroom or make a lot of noise in the halls. The point is to show the judge in a respectful manner that this matters to a lot of people.

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Reproductive Health Locked Up: No Contraception on Lock Down

In the newly-released ACLU-PA report, “Reproductive Health Locked Up,” there are numerous revelations as to just how unprepared Pennsylvania jails are to accommodate women’s reproductive health needs. Even more disappointing is how out of touch prison policymakers are with the practical realities of women’s encounters with the prison system.

According to the report, no county jails in Pennsylvania allow women to use contraceptives for the purpose of pregnancy prevention during incarceration. Over half of the prisons surveyed had no policy at all about contraception, and those that did only allowed inmates access to birth control for a medical purpose other than preventing pregnancy. The lack of support for women taking control of their reproductive health is unconscionable.

One might find it hard to imagine why an incarcerated woman would be concerned about the risk of pregnancy. This is the reality: the average jail stay for women is less than two weeks in length (pp. 22-23, “Reproductive Health Locked Up”). Then they’re out and back to their lives—but their pregnancy prevention plan has been disrupted. Repairing it might very well take a back seat to the litany of priorities to address after “getting out”—unresolved legal issues, compliance with parole, drug treatment, reconnecting with loved ones, finding a job.   

Reducing unplanned pregnancy is a major public health concern across the country. For women who are already in contact with the criminal justice system, an unplanned pregnancy can be a significant destabilizing event, one that would make it even harder for them to “straighten out” and get back on the right track.

How’s this for radical thinking: find out if women are using contraception upon intake and continue their prescription for as long as they want it. The infrastructures to take medical histories and to dole out medication are already in place. Offer affordable contraceptive options to all women before release, along with a prescription for refills, just like they’d receive from a doctor. Treat an encounter with the prison system as an opportunity to broaden the health options of low-income women and to empower formerly incarcerated individuals to make every child a wanted child. This can only have positive outcomes for both mother and child, and for society at large.

Janna Frieman is an intern with the ACLU-PA’s Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project. She is pursuing a master's in Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Reproductive Health Locked Up

In the past 25 years, the number of women and girls caught up in the criminal justice system has skyrocketed. Many have been swept up in the War on Drugs and subject to punitive sentencing policies for nonviolent offenses.

In Pennsylvania, thousands of woman cycle through the county jail system every year.  Unfortunately, the county prisons that house these women – 57 in total – have been slow to adapt to the changing demographics of their prisoners. As a result, the unique health care needs of women have been largely ignored, leaving the health of this vulnerable population at risk.

This week our Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project issued a new report, “Reproductive Health Locked Up: An Examination of Pennsylvania JailPolicies,” that exposes the failure of counties to put adequate health care policies in place. In many cases, current policies fail to address the most basic reproductive health services, such as pregnancy testing, prenatal care, screening and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, and access to abortion services.

Three-quarters of the women incarcerated in county jails are of reproductive age, and the majority are mothers and the sole caretakers of their children. Most are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, are undereducated, come from minority groups, and fall below the poverty line. Approximately 6 percent of all female inmates are pregnant upon admission to jail.

As the population of women in jail grows, counties will increasingly be vulnerable to lawsuits brought by prisoners whose medical treatment or lack of treatment has caused them harm or violated their constitutional rights. The public will be harmed as women laving jail re-enter the community with unaddressed health needs. And finally, we as a society are harmed when we squander the opportunity to help the most vulnerable among us.

Over the next few days, we will be posting a series of blog posts highlighting some of the findings of the report and what needs to be done to fix these problems.

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Thursday, February 09, 2012

Voter ID is not about the majority

In the midst of the debate over requiring all voters at all elections to show government-issued photo identification, polls showing majority support are occasionally cited as justification for this initiative. It's true. A majority of people see no issue with requiring voters to show ID. This isn't surprising since most people have some form of government-issued ID, typically a driver's license.

But here's the thing. The opposition to House Bill 934, the voter ID bill currently before the Pennsylvania General Assembly, has never been about the majority. We know and have always known that most people have ID.

But we also know that a significant percentage of U.S. citizens, approximately 11 percent, do not have the ID required by HB 934 and would struggle to produce the documentation PennDOT requires to get an ID. Who are they? They are disproportionately seniors, blacks, people living in poverty, and people with disabilities. 

Take a look at the groups in Protect Our Vote, the coalition advocating against voter ID. It includes Black Political Empowerment Project, Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Conference of the NAACP, the Alliance for Retired Americans, Project H.O.M.E., SeniorLAW Center. These are organizations that represent particular communities that are at higher risk of losing the vote if HB 934 passes.

The ACLU has a well-deserved reputation for defending anyone whose rights are endangered, regardless of race, religion, income, etc. But whose rights are most frequently at risk? It's relatively rare that we advocate at the state capitol for people who live comfortable lives. It's relatively rare that we advocate for people who are like those in power at the legislature and in the governor's office. We will if there is a legitimate issue at hand. But our fellow Americans whose rights are most at risk are also those communities who are most likely to be marginalized by the majority population, due to any number of factors, including race and ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, income, disability, etc.

We fail as a nation when we are unable to empathize with those who lead lives that are different from ours. As we recognize Black History Month, we must never forget that the struggle for the right to vote- a struggle that took nearly 200 years to make right- has never been about the majority or the powerful. And that's why HB 934, our voter ID bill, cannot pass.

House Bill 934 is currently before the state Senate Appropriations Committee. It is critical that you contact your state senator to ask him or her to vote "NO" on voter ID. You can learn more about this issue and find your senator's contact information at this link.