Rewind 2017: Hold DAs Accountable — Vote Smart Justice

Nick Pressley (right, standing), manager of the Campaign for Smart Justice, preps canvassers on the day the work began.

In this series of blog posts called Rewind 2017, we’re taking a look back at some of the highlights and the challenges of defending civil liberties over the last 12 months.

The district attorney is the most important player in the criminal justice system, with the power to decide who is prosecuted, on what charges, and how many years a person could spend in prison. With near total discretion, a county’s top prosecutor can fuel mass incarceration or act as an agent for change and reform in the system.

These important points were driven home to many Philadelphians in this year’s election for DA — the most consequential and closely watched race in years — thanks to the voter education and election turnout efforts of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and our allies.

The first-of-its-kind initiative for our organization, the Vote Smart Justice campaign focused in a nonpartisan fashion (ACLU-PA did not and cannot endorse a candidate) on educating our nearly 12,000 Philadelphia members who are registered voters on civil liberties issues, such as cash bail, civil asset forfeiture, the death penalty, and transparency.

Vote Smart Justice facilitated a timely and long overdue conversation on rethinking the role of prosecutors. After all, Philadelphia has the highest incarceration rate of America’s 10 largest cities, a reality which separates families and tears communities apart. 36,000 Black men in Philadelphia are “missing” due to imprisonment or early death. Cash bail is the new debtors’ prison, with many people in jail awaiting trial because they cannot afford to get out. Between 94 and 97 percent of cases end in plea bargain, a McJustice system that cares little about guilt or innocence and more about expediency.

The Philadelphia Police Department has used deadly force at six times the rate of the NYPD, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Justice. Our citizens, disproportionately people of color, are humiliated and harassed with pedestrian stops by police, of which 1 in 4 lack reasonable suspicion, as required by law. And civil asset forfeiture allows the police to rob citizens of their homes, cars, and money, even without convicting them or even charging them with a crime.

Perhaps no one is more qualified to speak to the need for criminal justice reform than those who are personally impacted by the criminal justice system. ACLU-PA dispatched a team of 51 voter education canvassers, all of whom are formerly incarcerated or have a loved one with a criminal record. These canvassers knocked on doors across the city, educated Philadelphians on the role of the district attorney in mass incarceration, told their personal stories, and urged people to go out and vote.

“We honestly did not know what to expect. We’ve never done anything like this in our history,” said Nick Pressley, who was the manager for the voter education effort during the DA race and is now the deputy campaign manager for the ACLU of PA’s Smart Justice Campaign. “We were amazed at the overwhelmingly positive response from our staff and our members.

“I’ll never forget being at a member’s home with one of our canvassers for a speaking engagement and looking over to see this man who was just released a couple months earlier huddled with one of the most renown cognitive therapists in the nation. They stayed like that for a good half hour, discussing techniques my canvasser had learned while working in a similar field on the inside.”

This effort in Philadelphia is the first of ten voter education campaigns that the national ACLU’s Smart Justice Campaign will implement. In addition to our high-impact litigation, ACLU-PA is taking bold and aggressive action to bring about change by educating voters on what is at stake in the criminal justice system and empowering them to turn out on Election Day.

This work now pivots to hold the new DA — and ourselves — accountable for the positions that were staked out during the campaign. When Larry Krasner takes office next month as the next district attorney of Philadelphia, ACLU-PA and our allies at the Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney will remind him of where he has stood on smart justice, will hold him accountable when he fails, and will lift him up when he follows through. It took a long time to build the destructive criminal justice system we now have. The work of building a smart justice system does not end merely with one election.

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.

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