by Marianne Stein & Alex Domingos
When most people think of the important players in the criminal legal system, they may think of the roles portrayed in the news, on television, in movies, and elsewhere: the judges, prosecutors, or defense attorneys who are often the most visible during a trial.
But, in Pennsylvania, there is a lesser known legislative agency that wields incredible influence in the criminal legal system.
In the late 1970s, the Pennsylvania legislature created and mandated the Commission on Sentencing to devise sentencing guidelines for the state. Their intended purpose was to ensure consistent, fair, and rational sentencing across the commonwealth. The commission also collects data to monitor and report on sentencing guideline conformity along with conducting research in order to determine the efficacy of the guidelines.
The 11-member Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing is comprised of four judges, two state senators, two state representatives, a defense attorney, a district attorney, and a professor of law or criminology.
So, why should Pennsylvanians care about the sentencing commission?
Because a smart justice-minded commission could transform Pennsylvania’s criminal legal system. Or, they could make an already bad problem worse.
For instance, in 2018 the commission was considering the implementation of a risk assessment tool that would have drawn heavily from existing criminal legal data to determine the likelihood that a person would be at risk of committing a crime in the future.
The problem is that existing criminal legal data is steeped in the racial biases that plague the criminal legal system. What’s more, by the commission’s own admission, the proposed tool would have been no better than a coin flip in actually predicting future criminality.
Although most Pennsylvanians have not heard about the sentencing commission, the commission is accountable to them.
In just a few weeks, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and smart justice allies organized more than 1,000 people to contact commission members and urge them to oppose the risk assessment proposal. During public hearings in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia, dozens of community members and advocates spoke out against the proposal.
The pressure worked. When the commission approved the final version of the risk assessment tool, the most problematic elements had been removed, a testament to the power of people when they take direct action.
Currently, the commission is trying to fast-track another risk assessment tool that would be used pretrial in domestic violence cases. The fast-tracking of this plan would have prevented advocates from fully assessing the details of the proposal and neglected the public the opportunity to comment.
But once again, when Pennsylvanians from across the commonwealth contacted the commission members to urge them to allow more time and give a comprehensive review and public comment period, the commission quickly moved to make clear that they weren’t trying to fast-track anything.
From abandoning flawed risk-assessment instruments to re-imagining sentencing guidelines for a decarceral effect —meaning it reduces, not increases, incarceration— to increasing the use of alternative sentencing, Pennsylvania could begin to shed our reputation as one of the most punitive and overly incarcerated states in the nation.
So, what can Pennsylvanians do to ensure their voices are heard?
The commission regularly holds meetings that are open to the public. They are also required to allow a public comment period when they are considering new policies.
The bottom line: when you speak out, the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing listens.
With that in mind, it’s critical for Pennsylvanians to let the members of the commission know that we won't accept the commonwealth being one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to mass incarceration, and that we demand better from those who represent us.
Join the ACLU of Pennsylvania today to stay up-to-date on opportunities to advocate for smart justice at the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing and with other key decision makers across the commonwealth.
Marianne Stein is the Legislative Associate and Alex Domingos is an Organizer for the Campaign for Smart Justice at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.