Pennsylvania Criminal Justice Reform Movement
Policy makers and civil rights leaders have been advocating for a reform of the criminal justice system for decades. In the wake of several horrific videos across the nation showing police officers killing unarmed suspects—most of whom were minorities—the need for change has never been more apparent. The time is ripe for a nationwide bipartisan discussion over how to reform the criminal justice system — and for Pennsylvania criminal justice reform.
Some of the most pressing issues that are in need of solutions are:
- Mass incarceration
- Prosecutorial and police misconduct
- Unequal distribution of justice along socioeconomic and racial lines
- Unnecessarily harsh sentencing
- Punishment instead of rehabilitation
To many, if not most, Americans, the criminal justice system is far removed from daily life. But to many disadvantaged citizens, the dysfunctions of this system are defining their very existence. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once stated: “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” With the media finally putting the spotlight on abuses and inequality within our criminal justice system, the nation has never been in a better position to take Dr. King’s words to heart.
National Criminal Justice Reform Efforts Taking Shape
Today, a bipartisan coalition, the Justice Action Network (JAN), composed of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), the Charles Koch Institute and Koch Industries, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the Coalition for Public Safety, the Center for American Progress, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and other national and regional organizations have committed to support criminal justice reform efforts across the nation.
While President Obama recently called upon Congress to take action toward justice reform at a national level, the JAN is working hard to pass laws in key states like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. As JAN Executive Director Holly Harris put it: “It is a perfect storm in this country for criminal justice reform.”
The Need for Pennsylvania Criminal Justice Reform
Around 3 million Pennsylvanians have a criminal record. An estimated 9 out of 10 employers run background checks on potential employees, so these records are keeping millions of our fellow citizens from getting jobs. In response, the JAN has proposed expungement legislation that would automatically clear criminal records of low-level offenses after a certain time.
Efforts toward Pennsylvania criminal justice reform also are in progress. A bipartisan coalition in the Pennsylvania legislature is working to pass a bill this session that would enable Pennsylvanians to clear second and third-degree misdemeanors from their records after 10 years. HB 1425 provides that potential employers would be unable to discover applicants’ prior convictions, but the information would still be available to law enforcement.
Pennsylvania law currently only allows expungement of arrest records and summary offenses. Only applicants over 70 years old with no arrests within the last 10 years can apply for the expungement of non-violent misdemeanors. In practice, being charged with a misdemeanor is a life-long barrier to getting hired for certain kinds of jobs. At a time when the nation is struggling to decrease unemployment, these policies are not only impractical — they’re immoral.
At Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC, we believe that opening employment opportunities to people with criminal records is one of the best ways to reduce the recidivism rate in the state. All of us can contribute toward making the criminal justice system more just. For more information on Pennsylvania criminal justice system and justice reform across the nation, you can visit justiceactionnetwork.org.
We also believe in fighting for justice on behalf of individuals charged with crimes and ensuring that their rights are protected through the criminal court process. If you’ve been charged with a crime, the Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyers at Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC can discuss your options for fighting your charge. Call us today at (412) 281-2146 for a consultation.