It wasn’t even April Fools’ Day when three former Traffic Court judges who recently served prison sentences started circulating nominating petitions for City Council seats last week. One — Mike Lowry — has since changed his mind, but two others — Thomasine Tynes and Willie Singletary — apparently don’t see their convictions and prison time as much of an obstacle to running for office. This is despite the fact that they were part of a traffic court so corrupt that it was abolished. That followed the indictment of nine of its judges in a circus of ticket-fixing.
The judges were convicted of lying to federal investigators. In an unrelated case, Tynes pleaded guilty after she received a $2,000 Tiffany bracelet from a lobbyist in a sting operation.
Putting aside the audacity of judges to now run for office after abusing the power entrusted in them by the public for personal gain, their run also sheds light on who does and who doesn’t get a second chance after serving time.
A report published last week by the Prison Policy Initiative graded the parole system of every state — and gave Pennsylvania a failing grade. Parole is the process through which the state can release a person who has not yet completed a full prison sentence. In other words, it is the process that decides whether a person is worthy of a second chance.
According to the report, the regulations governing the process present obstacles to the members of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole from granting parole. For starters, board members are not required to meet with the person whose future they are considering. Although the law requires the input of prosecutors, it is silent about whether family members, former employers, or prison staff can provide input. The law doesn’t offer a way for the petitioner to challenge any false information presented during the process or a meaningful path to appeal the board’s decision.
Even if someone gets out on parole, he or she is still far from being free.
Pennsylvania has one of the highest rates of supervision in the country — 1 in 22 adults in Philadelphia is under probation or parole. The rules of parole are strict, and people find themselves circulating in and out of prison for technical violations of parole.
A criminal record in Pennsylvania is a barrier to employment, adoption, financial aid, child custody, and housing subsidies. Thanks to the Clean Slate Act, which went into effect in December, records of people with certain misdemeanors are automatically sealed.
Last session in Harrisburg, lawmakers introduced a criminal justice reform package that would have streamlined the parole process for eligible incarcerated people. The bill went nowhere. In January, state Sen. Anthony Williams announced that he is giving the effort a second chance.
Although some elected officials friendly with ward leaders and donors may have the guts to go for a second chance despite a prison record, things aren’t so easy for an average Joe or Jane. That should change.