ACLU Pennsylvania announces new campaign to end cash bail, fight mandatory minimums
The ACLU announced a new Allegheny County campaign Thursday to end cash bail in the state and to prevent the return of mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses and violent crimes.
The organization is wading into grassroots organizing to address what it views as systemic racial disparities, citing statistics such as a 2015 Pitt study’s finding that nearly 50 percent of people in Allegheny County Jail are black, while black residents make up 13 percent of the county’s population.
“We’ve come to realize that litigation alone is not enough to effectively tackle mass incarceration and the racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” ACLU Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford said in a news conference on the Allegheny County Courthouse steps.
Shuford said the cash bail system is fundamentally unfair because it keeps in jail the people who can’t afford bail while they await trial, often leading to social and economic consequences such as job losses for those people.
The Pitt study found that 81 percent of the people in Allegheny County Jail in December 2015 hadn’t been convicted of a crime, compared to a national average in jails of 62 percent who hadn’t been convicted.
The group wants those in the criminal justice system to use tools other than high bail amounts to keep dangerous criminals locked up.
It is opposing a push in the General Assembly to reinstate mandatory minimum sentences that the state Supreme Court struck down in 2015.
Allegheny County District Attorney Steven A. Zappala Jr. last year supported reinstating mandatory minimum sentences to use as a tool in investigating serious crimes and fighting the opioid epidemic.
Shuford said the group will talk with legislators along with court officials and others to try to make changes. The group will work to inform voters about district attorney candidates but won’t offer outright support or campaign funding for specific candidates, he said.
He cited police officer Michael Rosfeld’s June 19 shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose, Jr. in East Pittsburgh, saying the group will continue to respond to “crises in the moment” such as Rose’s shooting.
He said “people are finally paying attention” to criminal justice issues, making now the time to organize for change.