Criminal Justice Committee

The Criminal Justice Committee is focused on addressing racial and ethnic disparities in Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system and reforming its indigent defense system. The Committee’s current initiatives include:

  • reducing disparities in the imposition of the death penalty;
  • eliminating the practice of incarceration of indigent defendants for failure to pay fines, costs, and court fees (“LFOs”);
  • reducing the use of cash bail and pre-trial detention;
  • reforming the Commonwealth’s indigent defense system;
  • and establishing model procedures for the expungement of juvenile records.

Improving Indigent Defense: Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that does not fulfill its constitutional duty to fund indigent defense, instead forcing localities to foot the bill. This inadequate system unfairly impacts case outcomes for indigent Pennsylvanians. At the request of bipartisan legislative leaders, the Commission drafted and submitted a report entitled Memorandum in Support of Reform of the Provision of Criminal Indigent Defense Services in Pennsylvania (see right-hand column). Published in October 2020, the memorandum sets forth a detailed plan for reform of Pennsylvania’s fragmented indigent defense system. It also contains an analysis of the costs and benefits of the proposed statewide and state-funded reforms, and is intended to serve as the basis for bipartisan legislation that will overhaul the Commonwealth’s broken system.

Capital Punishment Reform: In support of its death penalty reform initiative, the Committee contracted with the Pennsylvania State University in 2013 to conduct a statewide study to determine if racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic status influences the administration of the death penalty in Pennsylvania. The study, Capital Punishment Decisions in Pennsylvania: 2000-2010, Implications for Racial, Ethnic and Other Disparate Impacts, was released on October 12, 2017 (and is listed at right, under Reports). Based on the study’s findings, the Committee submitted recommendations to all three branches of state government to reduce bias and unfairness in Pennsylvania’s capital justice system. The Committee also played an active role in a second, broader study of the death penalty system conducted by the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission, entitled Capital Punishment in Pennsylvania: The Report of the Task Force and Advisory Committee (also attached at right). Currently, Penn State is conducting a third study on disparities in the prosecution of all Pennsylvania homicide cases from 2012-2016. When the report is completed later this year, the Committee will approach the legislature and the Governor’s Office about implementing legislative changes responsive to the reports’ recommendations.

Cash Bail and Legal Financial Obligations: In 2017, as part of its ongoing effort to reduce the pre-trial detention of indigent defendants charged with low-level, non-violent crimes, the Commission completed and widely distributed its guide, Ending Debtors’ Prisons in Pennsylvania: Current Issues in Bail and Legal Financial Obligations: A Practical Guide to Reform (see right-hand column). The report recommends reforms to Pennsylvania’s pre-trial detention system and to the imposition of court fees, fines, and costs (“LFOs”) on indigent defendants. The Commission continues to conduct programs on the guide for lawyers and judges statewide and nationally. At the local level, the Committee has distributed to all PA President Judges a set of proposed local rules (attached at right) designed to decrease the use of cash bail. At the state level, the Committee worked with the ACLU-PA to draft and submit proposed state court rules to strengthen the judicial requirement of conducting a detailed hearing on a defendant’s ability to pay LFOs and related expenses. The Committee also collaborated with the ACLU-PA on an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, challenging a lower court’s holding that an existing rule of criminal procedure does not require a court to consider the financial resources of the defendant when imposing court costs.

Most recently, the Committee began working with the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (“PLSE”) to reverse the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons’ recently-instituted policy, which prohibits hearings on an individual’s clemency application when that individual owes outstanding fines, fees, or costs. In November 2021, the Commission submitted testimony (attached at right) to the Pardons’ Board, outlining the Commission’s opposition to the policy.

Evaluating Risk Assessment Instruments for Racial/Ethnic Bias: On June 4, 2018, the Commission testified at a public hearing held by the PA Commission on Sentencing (“PCS”) on its proposed risk assessment instrument, designed to assist judges in making unbiased pre-trial confinement and sentencing decisions. In its testimony (attached at right), the Commission raised concerns with several of the tool’s criteria, such as prior arrests and employment history, which disproportionately increase the likelihood of incarceration for racial and ethnic minorities. The Commission also expressed its concerns with the proposed tool’s lack of racial impact analysis. Similarly, on August 6, 2021, the Commission submitted written Comments/Recommendations to the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Administration of Justice Sub-Committee on Rules of Court for Bail, Probation and Incarceration in Allegheny County. In its Comments/Recommendations (attached at right), the Commission raised several of the same concerns it identified in the PSC’s proposed risk assessment tool.

Police Reform Initiatives: During the 2019-2020 legislative session, the Committee advised the Pennsylvania legislature of its concerns with several then-pending police misconduct bills (see letter at right). To strengthen future reform initiatives, the Committee is now helping to draft various pieces of related legislation, including one that would comprehensively and effectively ban the use of officer-induced chokeholds. The Committee is also working with a joint PA Bar Association (“PBA”) Committee and a legislator on a bill requiring police departments throughout the state to either contract with a mental health professional or establish a specially-trained mental health unit to accompany officers to the scenes of potentially dangerous situations involving individuals suffering from mental health crises.

Racial Disparities, Other Issues in Life-without-Parole Sentences for Felony Murder: Two recent studies by PLSE have examined racial and ethnic disparities in the prosecution of felony murder and its accompanying mandatory life-without-parole sentence in Pennsylvania. Along with noting that Pennsylvania has the second-highest population of individuals serving life sentences in the nation, the studies found that almost 70% of people incarcerated for life-without-parole on second-degree murder convictions in Pennsylvania are Black. In addition, the second study found that 81% of individuals prosecuted in a group in which two or more people were convicted of second-degree murder are Black, suggesting that the statute’s equal application to principals and accomplices disproportionately affects Black people. The Committee is now working with the Lieutenant Governor and other stakeholders on legislation that would amend the statute in several ways, including eliminating life-without-parole sentences for accomplices.

Juvenile Justice Reform: In June 2021, the Pennsylvania Justice Task Force released a report analyzing the Commonwealth’s juvenile justice system. Among other things, the report found that at least two-thirds of youth enter the juvenile justice system for misdemeanors or contempt from Magisterial District Courts for failing to pay fines. It also demonstrated that serious racial inequality in the juvenile justice system exists, with the largest disparities existing for Black youth charged as adults. Based on the report’s findings, the Committee will assist in drafting legislation that would eliminate fines and other fees for youth and raise the minimum age at which youth can be tried as adults.

The Committee’s past initiatives include:

  • educating law students and new lawyers on student loan forgiveness for public interest attorneys;
  • advocating against the return of mandatory minimum sentences; and
  • pursuing other reforms outlined in Chapters Four, Five, Six, and Thirteen of the Final Report of the Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System (“Report”).