We are facing an inflection point in the Allegheny County Criminal Justice System. There are an historic 9 openings in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas this year. This is nearly twenty five percent of all of the Common Pleas Court Judges in the entire county. Now is the time that we can effect change by electing Judges that will work to fight for the reform that our criminal justice system so desperately needs.
What does the Court of Common Pleas do?
The Court of Common Pleas is the trial court in Pennsylvania. Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas has four divisions, Criminal Court, Civil Court, Family Court and Orphan’s Court. While many have little interest in judicial elections, the Court of Common Pleas has a major impact not just on individuals but also on the community as a whole.
Why is this election so important?
Because there are so many open seats, the voters have an opportunity to elect progressive judges who will seek to reform the criminal justice system. Some of the historic inequities in our criminal justice system are systemic racism, cash bail and overly long probationary periods.
What is systemic racism?
The term “systemic racism” does not mean that every person involved in the criminal justice system is a racist. Rather, it refers to the ways that the system was designed to disenfranchise People of Color, those who are economically underprivileged and the LGBTQ community. A prime example of this concept are representative juries. A representative jury refers to one which contains a representative cross section of the community, resulting in a jury of one’s peers. For a Person of Color, this requires that the jury contain a representative number of People of Color. This almost never happens in Allegheny County Criminal Court.
Many people assume that this is due to prosecutors striking People of Color from juries unfairly. While this does happen, it is not the underlying systemic problem. The systemic problem lies in the way in which we “pick juries”. When choosing a jury, the participants choose their jurors from a “jury pool” of potential jurors made up of 30 to 40 people. In over twenty years of choosing juries in Allegheny County (over 100) I have never seen a jury pool which contained more than 2 or 3 People of Color. Thus, even if a prosecutor does not strike People of Color from the jury, the deck is stacked from the beginning and the defendant has no chance of having a representative jury.
Why does this inequity exist? These potential jurors are chosen from the voter rolls which is problematic in and of itself. Further, there is no way to know if they are being chosen from particular geographical areas. This practice has always been in place and needs to be changed. Judges should be demanding representative juries so that defendants can have a true chance at a fair verdict.
What other the reforms are needed?
The two other major issues that must be addressed by the courts are cash bail and overly long probations. The vast majority of those incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail right now have not been convicted of the crime for which they are incarcerated. Most of those people are incarcerated for non-violent offenses and are facing less jail time if they are convicted then they spend in a cell before even being brought to trial. Our current system of cash bail punishes the poor just for being poor. This is offensive and needs to change.
Finally, Allegheny County hands out some of the longest probationary periods for non-violent offenses in the country. The thinking has always been that keeping people under court control lowers recidivism rates. The exact opposite is true. When people are put on excessively long probations (often 3 years or more for a non-violent offense) it sets them up for failure rather than for success. One missed supervision fee, a positive drug test or a minor interaction with law enforcement can land a probationer back in jail. Consequently, the person often loses his/her employment. Often, the result is that the Judge actually extends the individual’s probation period as punishment for the “violation.” Thus, the cycle of incarceration continues while the court costs that the individual owes continue to climb making the person even less likely to become a productive member of society. This affects not only that individual but also their family and society as a whole. The taxpayers of Allegheny County pay approximately $100 per day to incarcerate someone in the county jail.
What can Court of Common Pleas Judges do to solve these issues?
Judges can address these issues by using the power given to them by the voter in a positive manner. Judges can refuse to set long probationary periods for non-violent offenses and refuse to incarcerate people pre-trial with cash bail. Judges have almost complete power in their own courtrooms to enact change.
However, if we elect a group of progressive judges who will fight for change as a group they can force systemic change across the criminal justice system in Allegheny County. This is why, with 9 open seats, this election cycle is a once in a generation chance to force criminal justice reform.
George Heym is currently collecting petition signatures to run for Court of Common Pleas Judge. He previously ran for the same position in 2019. NoBo Progressives will vote to Recommend candidates running for Court of Common Pleas Judge on March 14 during its virtual endorsement meeting.
To learn more about George Heym's campaign visit: https://www.heym4judge.com