My experience with the criminal justice system opened my eyes to how much reform is needed | Opinion
The Pennsylvania General Assembly should amend the state's criminal code to significantly reduce high maximum sentences across the board, in particular for drug offenses, assault, robbery, and burglary.
I was a 24-year-old grad student at a private university when my friend and my relative got arrested on what I maintain was a bogus charge. The police had used an informant and insisted that I corroborate his lie about my friends. When I refused, they said I was part of the conspiracy. I was convicted of conspiracy to distribute drugs and sentenced to five years in prison under a mandatory minimum sentence rule.
My experience with the police and the courts gave me new insight into how our criminal justice system works — and fails to. The stories I heard from fellow inmates I met in prison challenged many assumptions I'd held about the fairness and effectiveness of our system.
Upon my release, I dedicated myself to challenging the broken criminal justice system. Today, I am the senior field organizer for the ACLU of Pennsylvania's Campaign for Smart Justice.
The Campaign for Smart Justice, in partnership with the Urban Institute, recently completed a comprehensive, two-year study that analyzes the drivers of incarceration in Pennsylvania and ways the system could more effectively deal with criminal justice and reduce racial disparities.
The incarceration rate in Pennsylvania has continued to grow in recent decades; while the state prison population has recently plateaued and dropped slightly, the number of people in county jails has spiked.
Who is being locked up? Mostly people of color. Black people account for 47 percent of Pennsylvania's prison population despite making up only 10 percent of the commonwealth. Latinos are 3.3 times and blacks 8.9 times more likely than whites to be locked up in Pennsylvania.
Bold action is needed from the state legislature, district attorneys, courts, and others to bring meaningful reform to our criminal justice system.
The mass incarceration crisis in Pennsylvania doesn't just threaten to ruin the lives of those serving time and their loved ones. It's also a huge burden on Pennsylvania taxpayers. Between 1986 and 2016, spending on corrections increased more than sixfold in Pennsylvania, while funding for higher education from the general fund decreased by 22 percent. This is not a partisan issue. Similar reforms have yielded meaningful progress in so-called red states, like Louisiana, and blue states, like New Jersey.
We need sentencing reform. The Pennsylvania General Assembly should amend the state's criminal code to significantly reduce high maximum sentences across the board, but in particular for drug offenses, assault, robbery, and burglary. Legislators should also reject any attempt to reinstate mandatory minimum sentencing. Nobody should share the experience I had of a judge saying that he disagrees with your sentence but there's nothing he can do about it.
Pennsylvania should enact reforms to limit the number of people sent to prison due to parole or probation violations, especially minor ones. I've seen far too many friends get sent back to prison for the most innocuous violations — like being late for an appointment or missing a call with a parole officer. More than 296,000 Pennsylvanians are on probation or parole as you read this, and the rate in our state is growing, even as those numbers decline nationally — and each of them is at risk for an immediate return to prison for the tiniest violation.
We also need a comprehensive approach to address systemic racial disparities in the system, disparities that continue to break my heart.
The old approach to criminal justice has damaged lives and has cost billions of dollars, with few positive outcomes. It is time for a new way of thinking. We need to demand from legislators, district attorneys, and the courts a bold vision for smart criminal justice reform now. Continued business-as-usual holds far too high a cost for all of us.
Terrell Thomas is the senior field organizer for the ACLU of Pennsylvania's Campaign for Smart Justice.