CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Allegheny County Jail
Criminal justice advocacy can be a long slog in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. There have been some statewide successes recently, like Pennsylvania's new law to expand access to clearing criminal records, but there have been setbacks too, like the failure to address Pennsylvania’s high probation and parole rates.
In Allegheny County, advocates have also struggled to pass meaningful reforms, so groups are now taking a direct democracy approach. Led by the Alliance for Police Accountability, several groups are gathering signatures in an attempt to place two ballot initiatives — one looking to end solitary confinement in the Allegheny County Jail, the other to ban “no-knock” warrants in the city of Pittsburgh — for the primary election in May.
A lawsuit filed in September by ACJ inmates alleged that solitary confinement was being used as a punishment against inmates seeking mental health care.
Recent research out of Cornell University shows that even a short amount of time in solitary confinement can actually increase recidivism rates, as well as unemployment rates.
APA points out on its website that many people in the ACJ have never been convicted of any crimes. Jails are where defendants are held if they can’t make bail before they attend their trial, as compared to prisons, where convicted people are held to serve out their sentence.
“Our ballot initiative will virtually end this barbaric practice, currently deployed by jail authorities in lieu of providing actual mental healthcare,” reads a statement on APA’s website.
The second potential ballot initiative is an attempt to create Breonna’s Law for the city of Pittsburgh. The ballot initiative seeks to end the use of “no-knock” warrants by police in the city. The profile of these searches was raised due to the shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville. Taylor was shot five times and killed after police entered her apartment on a no-knock warrant.
APA says Pittsburgh has consequences of using no-knock warrants, including settlements for unannounced raids. In 2014, the city of Pittsburgh paid $107,500 to a Carrick family after the family filed a lawsuit over alleged abusive behavior during an announced raid of the family’s home.
“In the past six years, multiple settlements costing hundreds of thousands of dollars have been reached between the city and victims of such police raids,” reads a statement on APA’s website. “This is unacceptable; while the practice has been supposedly discontinued temporarily, we must prohibit it altogether through an amendment to the city charter.”
According to APA, they need more than 30,000 signatures by Feb. 16 to get both initiatives on the ballot. An event at East Liberty Presbyterian Church will be held on Feb. 7 from 1:30-3 p.m. where registered voters can sign the petitions. People can also request a petition form be mailed to them
by visiting the APA website.
On Jan. 19, a bill was introduced into Pittsburgh City Council that seeks to ban Pittsburgh Police officers from using “no-knock” warrants. It was introduced by Councilor Ricky Burgess (D-Point Breeze) and four other councilors joined as co-sponsors, including Bobby Wilson (D-North Side).
Wilson acknowledged the ballot-initiative effort, and tweeted on Jan. 19 that he feels strongly that the city council “should ban it outright and leave nothing to chance.”