Challenging the School to Prison Pipeline

“Summary Citations” are tickets issued for minor criminal offenses including disorderly conduct, loitering, harassment, and petty theft. They are considered a criminal conviction and can result in a significant fine.

In some Philadelphia collar counties, summary citations are routinely being issued to children in schools by police and school resource officers. Secondary notice of the hearing date for the citations may, or may not, be mailed to the student’s home address, which means that parents of guardians of the students may be unaware that a citation has been issued and a hearing date set. Judges may adjudicate these cases in abstentia – which means that they can find the juvenile guilty and impose a fine without the juvenile or their parents being present. Under the Public Defender Act, indigent counsel is never assigned for these cases, so even when the respondent is present for the hearing, they may be unrepresented by counsel.

Summary citations appear as an arrest/conviction on a criminal background check. Moreover, if the fines remain unpaid, a bench warrant can be issued. Furthermore, the juveniles record cannot be expunged until the fines are paid, which means that the conviction can remain on their record well into adulthood.  Students involved in this project are working to investigate the scope of this practice in the Philadelphia area.

Helping Incarcerated People Be Heard

The Pennsylvania Prison Society receives hundreds of letters, annually, from people incarcerated within Pennsylvania prisons. While organizations make every effort to respond to these letters, most of the queries in these letters will never receive a substantive answer because of organizational capacity constraints and the reality that most of the people answering these letters are not law-trained. Thus, incarcerated people who have valid legal concerns may never receive substantive information or referrals that could help give them some modicum of justice or, at least, fair process.

Students involved in this project worked with the Prison Society to determine the legal concerns most often reflected in prisoner correspondence. Students then conducted research to determine the best approach to the concerns reflected. Using this research, they drafted boilerplate letter responses that lay organizations can append to the responses that they send to prison correspondence, which include legal information, citations, and references. Importantly, these boilerplate letters were written in an audience-driven style, with the intention that they provide information in an accessible and user-friendly way.

Mitigating the Risk of Hiring Returning Citizens

One of the primary concerns expressed by returning citizens is the difficulty that they face when looking for employment. Even when job applicants are highly skilled or certified in a certain trade, employers are still reluctant to hire people who have a criminal record. This is especially true when the record involves violence or a drug crime, but also applies to people convicted of nonviolent offenses and misdemeanors. While the “Ban the Box” initiative has perhaps had some positive effect in this area, many employers still refuse to hire people convicted of certain offenses, even when there is no clear connection between that offense and the qualification for the job. Moreover, certain employers who might be interested in hiring returning citizens are barred from doing so by law.

In this project, students surveyed local businesses to determine how employers assess the risk that returning citizen employees pose and to understand employers’ perceptions of any civil liability they might face if these employees were to commit a crime during the course of business. Based on this information, students then worked to conceptualize an insurance/bonding agency that would insure employers against the risks posed by hiring returning citizens. It would cover, for example, theft by employees; profits lost from no-notice no-shows; loss or injuries incurred from a violent incident in the workplace; etc.

Low-Wage Worker Organizing

The SJLC has worked to support the Coalition to Respect Every Worker (CREW), to advocate for the rights of low-wage workers in Philadelphia. CREW is mostly comprised of worker member organizations that have been at the forefront of advocating for strengthening laws that help protect workers, such as paid sick leave, fair scheduling, and anti-wage theft protections. With members of CREW it released Enforcing Wins by Philly Workers: Transforming Laws on Paper into Real Change, focused on advocating for the improved implementation and enforcement of worker protection laws on-the-books. After the pandemic hit, it helped to create a COVID-19 Fact Sheet  about the legal rights of workers.


Ending ICE Collaboration

The SJLC has worked with multiple organizations on the issue of local collaboration with ICE. By systematically targeting immigrants for arrest, detention, and deportation, ICE creates fear within communities and perpetuates cycles of trauma and hardship. Through the “sanctuary city” movement, localities have reinforced that immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility. Participation by local authorities is entirely voluntary and not required by law. Further, by assisting with enforcement of federal immigration law, localities expend their own resources and open themselves up to potential liability.

Students first examined the ways in which localities were using ICE detainers throughout Pennsylvania. This work was done in conjunction with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), and Juntos.

They next turned to the more general issue of collaboration between local law enforcement and other government officials to assist with gathering information, stopping, apprehending, and detaining immigrants in Pennsylvania. This work was done in conjunction with Juntos and other allies. 

Most recently, SJLC has released Dismantling ICE in Pennsylvania: Toolkit of Model Policies for Advocates & Communities Seeking to End Local Collaboration with Federal Immigration Officials. This toolkit aimed to support community-based, immigrant-led movements that are fighting to end local government collaboration with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This toolkit was created in conjunction with PICC.

Berks Family Detention Center

For years, the SJLC has been working with the Shut Down Berks Coalition, a secure facility that holds immigrant families and their children.  Students have argued for how the detention of families violates state law. They have helped to prepare an Urgent Action Appeal filed with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf of Juntos and other advocacy organization arguing that the detention of families violates international law. Most recently, they have been involved in ongoing state court litigation concerning the facility.

Non-compete agreements

The Social Justice Lawyering Clinic teamed up with the Fair Labor Section of the Office of the Attorney General of Pennsylvania to investigate the problem of non-competes faced by low-wage workers in Pennsylvania. A non-compete is an agreement between an employer and an employee that prohibits the employee from working for a competing employer after leaving a job. Non-competes can sometimes be lawful (e.g., to protect trade secrets). Employers, however, unlawfully use non-competes with low-wage workers to restrain their mobility.

ICE out of courts

ICE arrests and court personnel collaboration with ICE has obstructed justice by instilling fears in immigrant communities about going to court. The Social Justice Lawyering Clinic collaborated with Community Legal Services and the the ICE Out of Courts coalition to collect information from lawyers, legal services organizations, victim service advocates, and community based organizations across the state about this issue. On January 30, 2019, the Sheller Center released Obstructing Justice: The Chilling Effect of ICE’s Arrests at Pennsylvania’s Courthouses. The report is authored by Patrick Gordon (’19), Kelley Grady (’19), and Shaqueil Stephenson (’19) and covered by the Philadelphia Inquirer, WHYY, and Slate.

Non-English-Speakers and the courts

The Social Justice Lawyering Clinic has worked twice on the issue of non-English speakers and the courts. The first time they teamed up with Friends of Farmworkers, Community Legal Services, Community Justice Project, and the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network, to produce Barriers to Justice for Non-English Speakers in Pennsylvania Courts, which documents the difficulties that non-English-speakers face in Pennsylvania’s District Justice Courts. The second time they collaborated with the Farmworker Clinic at Villanova Law School to conduct court observation in several counties. They produced a follow-up report, Unfinished-Business, which detailed how access to justice dramatically differed for non-English speakers based on the county they live in despite statewide rules about language access obligations for the courts.