Class-action lawsuit aims to change use of probation detainers at Allegheny County Jail
Six people incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail filed a class-action lawsuit this week alleging the jail’s “pervasive” use of probation detainers violates their state and federal constitutional rights.
A probation detainer stops a person’s release from jail until it can be determined if they violated their probation.
The public interest law firm Abolitionist Law Center and the nonprofit Civil Rights Corps, which represent the plaintiffs, claim that more than 600 people are “illegally trapped” at the jail for long periods of time after they’ve been arrested for a probation violation, “without an adequate assessment or determination that such detention is necessary.”
Allegheny County Administrative Judge Jill Rangos, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judges Anthony Mariani and Kelly Bigley, Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper, probation director Frank Scherer and four probation hearing officers are named as defendants in the suit.
Spokespeople for the Pennsylvania Courts and the Allegheny County Jail declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
According to the county’s jail population dashboard, as of Oct. 4, 619 of the 1,587 people incarcerated at the jail had a probation detainer against them. After a probation detainer is issued against a person, they have “no recourse and no way to get out,” said Sumayya Saleh, a senior attorney with Civil Rights Corps.
The lawsuit alleges that hearings about potential probation violations are “devoid of basic, constitutionally required procedural and substantive safeguards.” At a press conference on Tuesday, Saleh said people often don’t have the chance to consult with their lawyer or public defender before the hearing, and no defense or evidence is presented.
The complaint also claims that Judges Mariani and Bigley have a “blanket” “no-lift” policy that automatically requires the people they supervise who are arrested for an alleged probation violation remain in jail until their next hearing.
“There is no compelling argument that these people need to be languishing in jail,” Saleh said. “Quite the contrary. Around 16% of them are in jail solely on a technical violation of probation, which could be as simple as failing to call their probation officer on time. And as a result of that, they’re stuck in jail for months on end.”
An analysis from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania found that Pennsylvania has the second-highest percentage of people on probation and parole and the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast.
Bethany Hallam, an Allegheny County Council and Jail Oversight Board member, said the jail’s use of probation detainers is especially alarming in light of recent deaths at the jail and ongoing concerns about inadequate staffing,food, and medical care.
“The usage of probation detainers is harmful and unconstitutional, Hallam said. “This important lawsuit shows every aspect of that.”
According to the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, 17 people have died at the jail since March 2020. Six people died at the jail this year, including Gerald Thomas, who died of natural causes in a hospital earlier this year after collapsing at the jail. Before his death, Mariani had declined to lift Thomas’ probation detainer, despite the fact that the charges against Thomas were dropped.
Damon Jones, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said he has spent eight months in Allegheny County Jail on a probation detainer. At Tuesday’s press conference, Tanisha Long, a community organizer with the Abolitionist Law Center, read a statement written by Jones. Jones said being held on a probation detainer has caused stress in his relationship and led to him losing his house, his dog, and his job.
“Everything I had, everything is gone,” Long read. “It makes me feel mad, stressed, anxious and depressed. And I know that when I get out, they’ll just release me, and you have to start from the ground up. It affected a lot on the outside. It’s going to be a struggle to get it back. It’s a sad thing. It was like hurricane Ian coming in and just blowing everything away.”
The suit asks that probation practices be changed and seeks monetary damages for “every day of illegal detention they have suffered.”