What’s a nice* organization like the ACLU doing in a place like electoral politics?

ACLU of Pennsylvania
5 min readMay 5, 2017

By Sara Mullen, Associate Director/Advocacy & Policy Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Misplaced priorities have resulted in overflowing jails and prisons, disproportionate prison sentences. The ACLU hopes to change that. Photo via Flickr user Thomas Hawk.

If you are one of the more than 13,000 ACLU members who live in Philadelphia, you may have been surprised recently to find an ACLU #VoteSmartJustice campaign canvasser at your door, eager to talk to you about the district attorney race.

For most of our 97-year history, the ACLU has shied away from electoral politics. Our involvement in the election process has been largely focused on securing and protecting the right to vote for all Americans, particularly those who have been historically disenfranchised.

But times and tactics change. And the ACLU recognizes that if we’re ever really going to fix a large, entrenched problem like mass incarceration, we must throw everything we’ve got at the problem. As part of its Smart Justice Campaign, a multi-year effort to reduce mass incarceration and eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the ACLU recently announced plans for nonpartisan voter education and engagement campaigns in 10 prosecutorial races. Philadelphia is the first.

Why are we focusing on district attorney races? Because, quite simply, we will never significantly reduce our prison and jail populations without addressing the most powerful, unaccountable, and least transparent actors in the criminal justice system — district attorneys.

All too often, prosecutors have been focused on punishment rather than on achieving true justice. With more than 90 percent of cases ending in plea bargains, prosecutors usually have the first and last word on who is incarcerated and for how long. And prosecutors in Pennsylvania have used their influence to lobby state legislators, often creating a roadblock to common-sense criminal justice reform and continuing policies that lead to mass incarceration.

Their misplaced priorities have resulted in overflowing jails and prisons, disproportionate prison sentences (especially for people of color and lower-income people), wrongful convictions, and the imprisonment of people who should instead receive treatment for addiction and mental health issues. They have devastated individuals, families, and entire communities.

Tragically, Philadelphia has the highest rate of incarceration of the ten largest cities in America. Yet despite the vital role the district attorneys play in the lives of Philadelphians — 300,000 of whom have a criminal record — voter turnout for these off-year elections has typically been abysmal.

We and our allies who care about criminal justice reform in this city hope to change that this year. We encourage our fellow Philadelphians who want to end mass incarceration and its horrific impact on our communities to educate yourselves about issues and candidates in the race. Talk to one of our canvassers, many of whom have had direct experience with the criminal justice system. Attend one of the many candidate forums. Visit our campaign website, www.votesmartjustice.org, to find out more about the ACLU’s platform and where the candidates stand on critical issues such as bail reform, transparency, racial disparities, civil asset forfeiture, and the death penalty.

But most importantly, show up to vote on May 16th.

*Full disclosure — it’s possible that not everyone would describe us as nice.

Neither the ACLU nor the ACLU of Pennsylvania endorse candidates.


(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

More kids come forward, allege abuse at Woodland Hills High School near Pittsburgh. Photo via The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
  • Post-Gazette: “More students come forward alleging abuse at Woodland Hills”

“He released surveillance video Tuesday that showed school resource Officer Steve Shaulis and Que’Chawn Wade, 14, step into an office where they got into an altercation that concluded when the officer punched out his front tooth. The student had to be taken by ambulance to a hospital where his tooth was sewn back into place. Que’Chawn was charged with resisting arrest in the April incident and his case is still pending in juvenile court, Mr. Hollis said. A second video clip shows a March 2015 incident involving a former Woodland Hills student being grabbed by Officer Shaulis and thrown to the ground. In the video, Mr. Murray is seen helping to hold the boy down while Officer Shaulis shocked him with a Taser. Mr. Hollis said that student was acquitted of resisting arrest, but received probation on a charge of disorderly conduct. “They make you flinch when you see what they did to that young man,” said Tim O’Brien, the attorney representing the fourth student.”

Related from the Post-Gazette: “Police watchdog group calls for investigation of Woodland Hills incidents”

  • ACLU-PA: “Latest Stop-and-Frisk Data Shows Modest Improvement by Philadelphia Police, but Much More is Needed, Say Civil Rights Lawyers”

“But in light of the approximately 140,000 pedestrian stops for 2016, that means that 35,000 persons in Philadelphia continue to be stopped illegally each year. Over 77 percent of PPD stops were of Black or Latino people, who make up just over half of the city’s population. A subsequent report, due to be released on May 16, will analyze the racial disparities in these numbers. The presiding federal judge will review the case soon after that. ‘The Philadelphia Police Department’s improvement is cold comfort for the thousands of people, largely people of color, who experience the trauma of illegal stops and frisks by police officers,’ said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. ‘While we appreciate the commissioner’s efforts, the people of Philadelphia are still waiting for an end to illegal stops, six years after the city agreed to do just that.’”

More from BillyPenn: “Stop-and-frisk in Philly: Police say it’s decreasing, but here’s the thing”

“His foot slipped; the machine automatically kicked on. Its paddles grabbed his left leg, pulling and twisting until it snapped at the knee and rotating it 180 degrees, so that his toes rested on his pelvis. The machine ‘literally ripped off his left leg,’ medical reports said, leaving it hanging by a frayed ligament and a five-inch flap of skin. Osiel was rushed to Mercy Medical Center, where surgeons amputated his lower leg. Back at the plant, Osiel’s supervisors hurriedly demanded workers’ identification papers. Technically, Osiel worked for Case Farms’ closely affiliated sanitation contractor, and suddenly the bosses seemed to care about immigration status. Within days, Osiel and several others — all underage and undocumented — were fired.”

THE APPEALThe Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

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ACLU of Pennsylvania

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