Criminal-justice reform advocates kicked off a “Campaign for Smart Justice” in Allegheny County this week, with the goal of reducing mass incarceration. Led by the American Civil Liberties Union, the campaign aims to engage local activists and organizations in promoting what it calls “smart justice” policies.
Those policies include ending the use of cash bail and of mandatory minimum sentences. The campaign also seeks to reform probation and parole, and to improve supports for former prisoners rejoining society.
“Pennsylvania and Allegheny County in particular are in dire need of reform,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said at a news conference Thursday.
“Consider that Pennsylvania has the fifth largest population of incarcerated people in the nation.” Shuford said.
Bureau of Justice statistics show that, when population size is taken into account, the state ranks 23rd in terms of the rate at which it incarcerates people.
“We are in the midst of a crisis that demands bold action,” he said.
Members of the campaign, which is part of a national initiative led by the ACLU, said they’ll inform voters about candidates’ records on such issues. Local advocate Leonard Hammonds said it’s especially important to scrutinize district attorneys, who decide how to charge defendants, as well as whether to offer alternatives to prosecution, such as drug treatment.
“The district attorney holds many powers that can bring solutions to the individuals within our community, and bring solutions to many of the issues that plague our community,” Hammonds said at the news conference.
Hammonds is executive director of the Hammonds Initiative, which works with at-risk youth and low-income people seeking jobs.
Shuford noted that his organization has advocated for civil liberties in the courts for nearly a century.
“But in the current political context, we’ve come to realize that litigation alone is not enough to effectively tackle mass incarceration and the racial disparities in the criminal-justice system,” Shuford said.
The ACLU will work with local activists to inform the public, and to lobby District Attorneys and state lawmakers.
Shuford said the campaign is a grassroots coalition “unlike anything the ACLU has ever done."