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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.

Improving Indigent Defense: Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that allocates not a single statewide dollar to indigent defense, instead forcing localities to foot the bill. This inadequate system unfairly impacts case outcomes for indigent Pennsylvanians. Accordingly, at the request of 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. As the Commonwealth emerges from the pandemic, the Committee is doubling down on its efforts to make indigent defense reform a priority for the legislature.

Capital Punishment Reform: In support of its death penalty reform initiative, the Committee contracted with the Pennsylvania State University 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, Commission staff drafted recommendations to reduce 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, entitled Capital Punishment in Pennsylvania: The Report of the Task Force and Advisory Committee (also listed 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. Commission staff have conducted programs on the guide for lawyers and judges in the Commonwealth and across the country. The Committee has also distributed a set of proposed rules (attached at right) designed to decrease the use of cash bail to the President Judges of Pennsylvania’s judicial districts. Relatedly, the Committee specifically worked with one county to amend its local rules to reduce the use of cash bail and accordingly, improve public safety while still decreasing pretrial incarceration. Committee members have also worked with the ACLU-PA to draft and submit proposed court rules to strengthen the judicial requirement of conducting a detailed hearing on a defendant’s ability to pay LFOs and related expenses. Additionally, the Committee collaborated with the ACLU-PA on an amicus brief to the PA Supreme Court, 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’ new policy, which prohibits hearings on an individual’s clemency application when that individual owes outstanding fines, fees, or costs.

Legislative Initiatives: During the 2019-2020 legislative session, the Committee advised the Pennsylvania legislature of its concerns with the ineffectiveness of 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 also supports the introduction of a bill that would require police departments throughout the Commonwealth to establish in-house, or otherwise contract with, a specially-trained mental health unit that would 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 (attached in the right-hand column) 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 study determined 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. On the basis of this study, the Committee is working with the Lieutenant Governor and other stakeholders to draft 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 (attached at right) 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 intends to 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”).