Discussing Criminal Justice Reform in Delco
On April 24, 2019, Indivisible Swarthmore: Moving the Needle hosted a discussion at Trinity Church Swarthmore on the state of Delaware County’s criminal justice systems. Two guest speakers, Delaware County-based criminal defense attorney Wana Saadzoi and Montgomery County Assistant Public Defender Lee Awbrey, fielded questions from about 25 attendees about two main topics: The discretion of the people implementing our criminal justice systems and the effects of frequent pretrial detention and lengthy probation/parole supervision.
Both Awbrey and Saadzoi emphasized that the people within our existing criminal justice systems have significant power over how to handle an alleged violation of the law. Awbrey gave the example that police can choose to arrest or let someone go with a warning; Saadzoi observed that judges rarely exceed a prosecutor’s recommended sentence. Saadzoi also stated that in her experience, prosecutors in Delaware County are encouraged to push for longer sentences. Both speakers called for what Awbrey termed the “redefinition of prosecutorial success” to focus not on length of sentences, but successful rehabilitation. Such cultural changes in prosecutors’ offices, both agreed, have historically come from the top down.
They next covered pretrial detention and probation/parole supervision in Delaware County. Awbrey noted that Pennsylvania has the third highest population of adults on probation/parole in the USA. She presented data from the Vera Institute of Justice demonstrating that Delaware County detains people — that is, orders them to jail before trial instead of keeping them free — at a higher rate than the USA and Pennsylvania. Delaware County’s rate of pretrial detention in 2015 was 30% higher than Pennsylvania’s and 45% higher than the nation’s. The data also demonstrated that courts in Delaware County order black and Latino persons detained at higher rates than other racial and ethnic groups.
Both speakers described the potentially severe consequences of these high rates of detention. Persons detained pretrial (where detention is allowed for up to 72 hours before a hearing) and for alleged parole/probation violations (where detention can stretch on for months without a hearing) can lose their jobs, homes, and custody of minor children. Awbrey pointed out that this can deprive already-impoverished persons of a meaningful chance to get back on their feet. Saadzoi added that lengthy periods of parole/probation supervision mean that probation officers are burdened with oppressive caseloads, which encourages probation officers to detain supervisees for even minor violations: “The easiest person to supervise is one who’s in jail.”
Awbrey and Saadzoi called for reforms to prevent excessive punishment, avoid the jailing of those who are unable (not unwilling) to pay fines, and to reduce the burdens on criminal justice systems personnel and taxpayers. They highlighted Pennsylvania Senate Bill 14, which its sponsors believe will reduce the length of probation/parole sentences and avoid penalizing poverty. SB 14 is co-sponsored by State Senator Tim Kearney.