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Stop Philadelphia's Drain on Social Capital - Vote on May 18th!

Tomorrow, May 18th is Election Day in Philadelphia. Our local elections are notoriously under attended and tomorrow we vote for the Democratic candidate for DA, incumbent Larry Krasner or challenger Carlos Vega. There are Republicans running as well, but in a largely Democratic city, the assumption is the winner of tomorrow's primary will take the general election in November.

The city has been plastered in billboards, sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Police, suggesting that the crime rate in Philadelphia is out of control because of Krasner's inability to do the job. They've also endorsed Vega, an odd move for an FOP who stands staunchly to the right of center on every issue.

One issue I was completely unaware of in the state of Pennsylvania, and so by default in the city of Philadelphia, is automatic detainers. A student in one of my classes this past semester educated all of us on the policy, which seems like it should be illegal, but is used frequently and consistently to incarcerate those on probation and parole AND to push plea deals that result in convictions, benefitting the DA office's bottom line. I asked this student if he would be interested in writing an op/ed or a blog post to educate folx on the issue in advance of Election Day. Below is a guest post from him.

If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes - Seth W.

Philadelphia is a tough town. There are not many that will dispute this claim. Decades of struggle, crime, and inequality are but a few of the causes. The questions are how to address it and what does that look like?

When discussing struggle, crime, and inequity, we must look at the criminal justice system and determine what role it plays in protecting the community, ensuring rehabilitation for those who get caught up in the system, and whether significant changes are necessary to a decades old system.

Statistics and frothy emotional appeal cannot hide the fact that the generations old criminal justice system in Philadelphia and its ways of doing things does not work. The crime rate is staggering, and the treatment of those accused is stacked against poor and minority communities.

What about the victims of crime?

Indeed, the criminal justice system and the role of the District Attorney, is to keep members of the community safe. The fact is, however, that those who find themselves in the criminal justice system are also members of the community and most will return to the community with the goal of becoming productive members of it.

Issues pertaining to the treatment of the accused takes a difficult turn when one finds themselves caught up in supervision via parole and probation system. Those who have experienced this refer to parole and probation as “the installment plan” understanding that the system will get the jail time out of you one way or another.

Automatic Detainer!

What is an automatic detainer? Not many know unless they have been victims of this arguably illegal tactic used to incarcerate those who have been deemed in violation of their parole/probation stipulations by their parole/probation officer.

Once under the yoke of automatic detainer the accused is incarcerated until a hearing can occur to determine if it is justified, often a minimum of a month. Essentially guilty until proven innocent, with no opportunity to petition release, unless you have funds to hire an attorney.

Once the hearing is in place and it is determined that the detainer was justified the accused now has two judges, front and back, with the back being able to keep the detainer in place until the “outcome of the front case” a term heard often on State Road.

Keep violent criminals off the street!

Indeed, certainly there are scenarios that call for a violent individual to be separated from the community, but the automatic detainer impacts many more individuals, who have committed non-violent petty crimes, but are still separated from the community, from their jobs, their home, their family, their lives resulting in them returning to society with nothing but wreckage.

The fact is that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office has utilized the detainer system to get convictions. When an individual is waiting to go to trial, with no ability to post bail due to the detainer, they are vulnerable for the DA to offer them a deal that will allow the inmate to potentially go home as well as automatically give the DA an opportunity to get a conviction.

Doing this adds yet another charge to the individuals record, as well as more probation time, and payment on the “installment plan” continues.

The election for Philadelphia District Attorney is May 18th. The two opponents are approaching the role of top prosecutor from different directions. Larry Krasner is advocating a progressive administration that is working to restructure the DA’s office policy, as well attempting to push courts towards necessary change, including working against the current detainer system. Vega is digging in fundamentally to the usual way of operating the office. His words suggest change while his actions are all too familiar.

Change is painful, mistakes will be made, that is an unavoidable fact. Change, however, is necessary if we are to address the problems of inequity that are embedded in the criminal justice system. If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes.

We urge you to vote for the progressive ideals that could transform Philadelphia’s criminal justice system and get so many in our communities off of the “installment plan” promising to drain the social capital out of our city.

Seth W. is a BSW student at West Chester University in Philadelphia. He has been a Philadelphia resident for decades and has lived experience with the Philadelphia criminal justice system. I am grateful for his time and willingness to share his insights on the automatic detainer policy.

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