Fifty-nine organizations, including the Sheller Center for Social Justice, filed an Urgent Appeal with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention about the detention of immigrant families in Berks County. Law students with the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, John Farrell, Anthony Sierzega, Mariya Tsalkovich, worked with Juntos, a local grassroots advocacy organization to draft the appeal. Anthony Sierzega explains, “sending an Urgent Action Appeal to the UN Working Group is an opportunity to demand justice for migrant families seeking safety and opportunity in the United States and to draw international attention to the disturbing human right abuses that our country continues to endorse.” See the Philadelphia Inquirer and WHYY Newsworks stories that feature Temple law students arguing that families have been arbitrarily detained by the U.S. in violation of international law.
Next steps on Traffic Court issues affecting returning citizens
This fall, Justice Lab students are continuing to work with their client, Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE), on problems identified in our report, Proposed Solutions for Improving the Experience of Returning Citizens with the Philadelphia Traffic Division. That report showed that traffic fines and license suspensions dating from before an individual’s incarceration can present a major barrier to employability years later.
Students are surveying Philadelphians at expungement clinics and other community events in order to gather more data about the experiences of returning citizens with traffic issues. The students are also developing a pilot legal services program through which PLSE will offer direct help to returning citizens, with the hope that the program will eventually be implemented around Pennsylvania.
Gabrielle Green L’18, a Justice Lab student, had this to say after attending a community event: “I think the biggest learning moment today was meeting people where they are. One of our client’s missions is for the past to not affect an individual’s future in regard to their employment potential, and it is good to hear about some of the barriers, and the hopeful solutions. It made me understand that although we may be small in number, we can still have a big impact in making change happen.”
Department of Justice cites Sheller Center language access study
A newly released report by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Language Access in State Courts, cites Barriers to Justice for Non-English Speakers in the Pennsylvania Courts, a Sheller Center study. In that study, Social Justice Lawyering Clinic students presented the results of their research on Pennsylvania’s Magisterial District Justice courts (the lowest level in the Pennsylvania court system). The research showed that these courts often operated in violation of civil rights laws mandating language services for people whose native language is not English.
DOJ’s report cites some of the problems uncovered by the Center’s study, including “instructing LEP [Limited English Proficient] individuals to wait in the court lobby until another person who speaks their language comes in, or [expecting] the LEP person to come to the courthouse with an English-speaking friend or family member.” DOJ states that “the challenge of providing meaningful language access in state courts demands that we continue to modernize, innovate, and keep pace with the evolving demographics of our country.”
With the development of a statewide language access plan in Pennsylvania, the hope is that the courts will implement uniform policies and practices that improve access to justice for non-English-speaking individuals.
Affordable housing and racial justice
The redevelopment of Philadelphia neighborhoods is putting pressure on the city’s supply of public housing – and on Philadelphia’s poorest residents, who are disproportionately persons of color. What can be done to ensure that their housing needs are fairly addressed?
With this problem in mind, Justice Lab students are continuing to work this fall with their client, Community Legal Services’ Housing Unit. While an advanced student continues to work on advocacy related to HUD’s new Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program (see our Philadelphia Rental Assistance Demonstration Program Advocacy Guide, issued last spring), other Justice Lab students are helping CLS develop a long-term strategy to address racial justice in affordable housing in Philadelphia.
Students are collecting and analyzing data about public housing properties, Section 8 contracts, demographics, income levels, gentrification trends, and other factors to identify ways to preserve affordable housing. This innovative work will allow the students and CLS to develop proactive strategies to preserve equitable, affordable housing in Philadelphia, before tenants are at risk of losing their homes.
“Live Stop” fines and fees: over $100 million to the Philadelphia Parking Authority
Katelyn Mays, a 3L, worked on Philadelphia’s troublesome Live Stop policy as a student in the Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. Last May, the Center issued a report discussing the impact this law has on Philadelphia drivers, particularly undocumented individuals who cannot legally obtain a driver’s license in Pennsylvania.
Live Stop is a Philadelphia policy that instructs the Police Department to tow and impound a driver’s car if they are found to be driving without a valid license or registration. The driver must pay towing and storage fees to the Philadelphia Parking Authority, as well as any unpaid parking tickets, in order to get their car back. As Katelyn points out, “these fees can be financially crippling for Philadelphia families.”
Katelyn and her clinic partner filed a Right to Know Request with the Parking Authority to see just how much the city was collecting through the program. They found that, since 2003, Philadelphia drivers have paid a total of approximately $75 million to the Parking Authority to retrieve their cars. Katelyn notes that many drivers are unable to afford these fees, and that the Authority then auctions off their unclaimed cars. Since 2002, the PPA has sold around 125,000 cars, producing an additional $65 million.