City Council hearing this week on charging parents for their child’s incarceration

On Friday, March 3, 2017 at 1:00 p.m. (note new time), Councilman Kenyatta Johnson is coordinating a hearing on the impact of fines and fees levied by the juvenile justice system on Philadelphia youth and their families.  The hearing will be at City Hall, in the Council’s main chamber, Room 400.  We hope you will join us.

This hearing will be focused on the City’s practice of charging parents for the cost of their child’s incarceration.  Affected parents, advocates, and the City’s Department of Human Services are scheduled to testify.  The practice of charging parents for the child’s cost of confinement has been occurring in Philadelphia since the 1990s, with little oversight, and acts as a second punishment for children and families.  Double Punishment, a report by Justice Lab and the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, contains more information on the practice and its harm to families.

If you or your organization know of parents affected by the City’s practice of charging parents for their children’s incarceration costs and would like to submit their stories to be part of the record, please reach out to us.  It is also possible to have additional parents testify in-person if we can connect with those parents quickly.  If you have any questions, please contact Wes Stevenson at

Social justice spotlight: John Farrell

Our second “Social justice spotlight” of the semester is by John Farrell, 3L. The photo shows John at the press conference at which the Urgent Appeal to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention was announced.

We, Mariya Tsalkovich, Anthoy Sierzega, and John Farrell, worked to challenge the U.S. government’s detention of families at Berks Family Detention Center in Pennsylvania, through the Sheller Center Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. Closely in conjunction with Juntos, a community-based immigrant advocacy organization, we helped to advocate for closure of Berks by arguing that these practices violate state, federal, and international law. Berks has been keeping children and families who seek asylum within the United States in prison-like conditions for potentially indefinite periods, violating their due process rights.

Over the course of our semester, we filed an Urgent Appeal with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, co-wrote an Amicus Brief on behalf of psychological providers in the state litigation related to the licensing of the facility, and created educational materials to bring these practices to light. It was an honor to be a part of these efforts, working closely with seasoned practitioners and community members alike. We got to have a direct hand in advocating on behalf of some of the most vulnerable immigrants coming to the United States.

Social justice spotlight: Wesley Stevenson

For our “Social justice spotlight” series, we ask students who participate in Sheller Center clinics and programs to talk a bit about their experience.  This week, we hear from Wes Stevenson, a third-year law student.

Over the past year, I’ve been working with the Sheller Center’s Justice Lab Clinic to end the City of Philadelphia’s practice of charging parents for their children’s incarceration costs.  During that time, every person I’ve talked to about the issue has expressed the same outrage and confusion I felt when I first learned this was happening.  Yes, this really happens, and it happens all across the nation.

This work is critical because the practice is fundamentally unjust, it hurts families during a critical time, and it has no real financial benefit for the City. And it has been going on for a long time.  Our work has been about ending the practice so no more families face these support orders.  But it has also been about holding the City accountable, for imposing these costs on working families for years, and ensuring that when the practice does end, it ends for good.

Philadelphia City Council has scheduled a hearing on the practice for March 3, 2017, at 11:00 a.m., in the Council chamber at City Hall.  I am grateful for the opportunity to testify at that hearing, alongside affected parents and advocates, and I’m hopeful that by the time I graduate, these collections will have officially stopped.

What’s in a Name? The “Sanctuary” Label

The Washington Post just announced that Bedford County, PA has reversed its policy of refusing to honor detainers by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The county did so in response to being labeled as a “sanctuary city” by immigration-restrictionist groups like Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

Using the Sheller Center’s Report on ICE detainers in Pennsylvania, written by students in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, groups like FAIR have been slapping labels on jurisdictions within Pennsylvania. These groups, however, overlook the essential details of the Report, which never once uses the word “sanctuary.” Rather, the Report discusses local policies on ICE detainers in the aftermath of the Third Circuit decision in Galarza v. Szalczyk.

Some background: detainers are requests by ICE to local authorities to hold individuals, who would otherwise be released, for pick-up by ICE. In Galarza, the Third Circuit held not only  that ICE detainers constitutionally could only amount to requests (as opposed to mandatory orders), but also that local jurisdictions could be held liable for choosing to wrongfully imprison someone solely on the basis of an ICE detainer. Our Report subsequently found that nearly half of Pennsylvania’s counties had decided, for these and other reasons, not to honor ICE detainers. Officials who volunteered their motivations mostly referred to the Galarza decision, while several mentioned the practicalities of limited bed space or the lack of reimbursement from the federal government.

But now Bedford County is backtracking because of the “sanctuary” label. Would Bedford County have left its policy in place if it had been called something else? Maybe. In our discussions with one Bedford County official, we were left with the impression that the policy change had been carefully considered after realizing that ICE holds were not mandatory and that the county faced potential legal liability.” Had the “sanctuary” label not been applied, county officials might have drawn on these discussions to explain to their residents the value of the policy in protecting the county from liability. Or one could imagine county officials convincing residents of the need to conserve law enforcement resources to address local problems rather than federal concerns.

So is the lesson for immigrant advocates to back away from the word “sanctuary”? As the Bedford County story confirms, the term has become pejorative in some circles (legislators in Harrisburg currently have four bills targeted against sanctuary cities and campuses). Some also believe that the term sanctuary is problematic because it inaccurately describes a refuge or place of safety – while the truth is that, regardless of a city’s policy regarding cooperation with ICE, ICE can enforce federal laws in any jurisdiction.  But other people embrace the term “sanctuary,” because it connects to historical efforts to protect people from unjust arrest – such as the underground railroad in the nineteenth century, or the refuge provided to Central Americans refugees during the civil wars of the 1980’s.

The strategic use of language is crucial to the success of social justice movements. But how do you decide on whether a term like sanctuary should be used in the advocacy context? In answering this question, I like the conclusion that our class arrived at the other day. As social justice lawyers, we should leave the choice of language to the people who are directly impacted by the issues.