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The Interbranch Commission implements recommendations from the Report of The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial, and Gender Bias in The Justice System. View the Report

Criminal Justice Committee

The Criminal Justice Committee is focused on reducing disparities and improving fairness in Pennsylvania’s criminal courts. 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.

Capital Punishment Reform: In support of its death penalty initiative, the Committee contracted with Pennsylvania State University to conduct a statewide study to determine if racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic status influences the administration of the death penalty. The study, Capital Punishment Decisions in Pennsylvania: 2000-2010, Implications for Racial, Ethnic and Other Disparate Impacts, was released on October 12, 2017. Based on the study findings, the Commission staff drafted recommendations for reducing bias and unfairness in Pennsylvania’s capital justice system for all three branches of state government. 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, Capital Punishment in Pennsylvania: The Report of the Task Force and Advisory Committee. Upon completion of the final report, the Committee began collaborating with law makers to draft legislation to implement the recommended reforms.

Cash Bail and Legal Financial Obligations: Recently, the Commission completed its own guide Ending Debtors’ Prisons in Pennsylvania: Current Issues in Bail and Legal Financial Obligations: A Practical Guide to Reform (see right-hand column), that recommends reforms to Pennsylvania’s pre-trial detention system and the imposition of court fees, fines, and costs (“LFOs”) on indigent defendants. In conjunction with the publication of the guide, Commission staff has presented on this topic to judges and lawyers throughout the Commonwealth and the country. Additionally, the Committee advocates for including racial impact analysis in any risk assessment tool used to assist in making pretrial detention decisions. Currently, the Committee is working with one jurisdiction to amend its local rules to reduce the use of cash bail while improving public safety and decreasing pretrial incarceration.

Improving Indigent Defense: Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that allocates not a single statewide dollar for indigent defense and instead, allows these costs to fall on localities. This inadequate system unfairly impacts case outcomes for impoverished Pennsylvanians. The Committee continues to advocate for legislation to address this issue across the Commonwealth.

Juvenile Justice Reform: Working closely with a panel of experts and practitioners in juvenile law, the Committee is pursuing the establishment of model procedures for the expungement of juvenile records.  Following the U.S. and Pennsylvania Supreme Court decisions regarding the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole, the Committee is also examining how the resentencing hearings are being conducted in individual counties across the state and continues to encourage various entities, such as local bar associations, to provide training to judges and defense attorneys in conducting these resentencing hearings.

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”).