A national award


For their successful effort to end Philadelphia’s practice of billing parents for cost of their child’s incarceration, Prof. Colleen Shanahan and her students have received the 2017 Clinical Legal Education Association Award for Excellence in a Public Interest Case or Project. The “Double Punishment” project, conducted by Justice Lab on behalf of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, was chosen through a competitive process involving clinical work from across the country.

Prof. Shanahan accepted the award at the national meeting of the Clinical Section of the Association of American Law Schools in Denver this week. Hundreds of clinicians were present at the ceremony, which recognized Justice Lab and the Sheller Center. Congratulations to Prof. Shanahan, her students, and everyone who worked on this effort!

Ripple effects from “advocacy in action”

We’ve shared lots of information about the Justice Lab effort that, in collaboration with many partners, led the City to decide to stop charging parents for the costs of their child’s incarceration. But Monday’s panel discussion about this example of “advocacy in action” brought out an additional point: social justice efforts can have a ripple effect.

L to R: Prof. Colleen Shanahan, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa, parent Kameelah Davis-Spears, student Wesley Stevenson, YSRP Co-Director Lauren Fine, and students Kelsey Grimes and Sela Cowger. Photo by Abraham Gutman.

Thus, the fact that City Council, the Department of Human Services, the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, and Temple law students were able – despite their differing roles — to cooperate in achieving this policy change had implications beyond the issue of incarceration costs. In a sometimes fractious political environment, “it showed,” DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa said, “that we can work together.”

Likewise, Philadelphia’s decision to stop charging parents may have implications for other counties, since the State is now considering revising statewide guidance on the issue.

And there’s more: the discussion is also no longer just about charging parents of incarcerated children. City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson stated he’s “in it for the long haul” of questioning the array of fines and fees that further impoverish people whose incomes are already too low.

It’s an encouraging set of ripples. And it was encouraging, too, to hear Councilman Johnson say that often in government, “the best common sense comes from the activists.”

Guest post: moving forward on criminal justice reform

Guest blogger Liza B. Fleming, a student at Temple Law, shares her reflections on last week’s Sheller-Center-sponsored panel on crime and policing (the second in our “Making Sense of the Legal Headlines” series).

“We need to be able to keep moving forward,” said Charles Ramsey, discussing police and criminal justice reform under the Trump administration. The Sheller Center panel, “Understanding the Headlines: Crime and Policing,” featured Ramsey, former Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner and co-Chair of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing; former prosecutor Meg Reiss, now leading the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and Lauren Ouziel, former federal prosecutor and Temple Law professor.

Professor Ouziel began by outlining some Obama administration criminal justice reform themes and those we can expect to see from the Trump administration. During the Obama administration, she explained, the government lowered penalties, including reducing crack cocaine penalties. Additionally, Justice Department directives encouraged prosecutors to effectuate reforms through charging discretion. Finally, successful policing reforms included an increase in pattern-and-practice investigations of police departments. By contrast, under the Trump administration, she noted that we expect to see less interest in charging and sentencing reform; a possible desire to enforce federal laws in states with legalized marijuana; and a decrease in investigations of police departments

The shift from the Obama to the Trump administration will set back the clock on criminal justice reform. “The emphasis on reform is going to be impacted by the current Justice Department,” Charles Ramsey conceded. But it became clear that the urgency of reform is not a product of the newly elected Trump administration; there have always been areas for potential reform. And with less interest in reform in the White House, change likely will occur on the local level. Meg Reiss noted, “There is so much opportunity with your local prosecutor to really drive change.” She explained that private funding and private organizations that support criminal justice would drive the progress. Thus, I was left with a hopeful message that even though the federal government will not be supporting reform, both the public and local organizations are finding a role in criminal justice reform. With that, we can keep moving forward.

Liza has also put together a set of links for further reading.




Guest post: border security and interior enforcement

Guest blogger Anne Bonfiglio, a second-year student at Temple Law, shares her reflections on last week’s Sheller-Center-sponsored panel (the first in our “Making Sense of the Legal Headlines” series).

Midway through the Q&A of last week’s panel on Border Security and Interior Enforcement, a student prefaced a question with the comment, “this is really depressing.”  Exiting the event, a professor confessed that only seconds before that remark a colleague had whispered the same to her.  For those who care about the rights of immigrants, January’s executive orders certainly are disheartening.  For those in the country without status, they are terrifying.  But I left with a more hopeful takeaway: these orders are vulnerable in the face of resistance.

The lecture, given by Professors Ramji-Nogales and Spiro, focused on the two Executive Orders signed January 25, 2017.  The first, “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” orders the construction of the infamous border wall.  The second, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” attacks “sanctuary jurisdictions” by removing their eligibility for Federal grants.  Additionally, these orders authorize an expansion of detention facilities, expedited removal, and immigration officer hiring, expand the definition of a criminal alien, and require the publication of data supporting the President’s anti-immigrant position.

On their face, these provisions are alarming.  Unfortunately, some, such as the expansion of expedited removal, are well within the President’s statutory authority (though they may present constitutional questions).  But others are less secure.  Some provisions, including increased hiring, detention, and the wall, are subject to Congressional budgetary approval.  Others, like the various reporting obligations, have inadequate infrastructure.  And the crackdown on sanctuary jurisdictions has at least three possible legal arguments against it: precedents prohibiting the commandeering of local law enforcement, constraining the use of funding to force compliance, and basic Fourth Amendment Protections.

While these orders have yet to be challenged in court, they can be resisted, whether through lawsuits or local community support of undocumented residents.  As an immigrants’ rights advocate, I find inspiration in these possibilities.  Yes, recent policy is depressing and the toll on families is staggering.  But it is important that one doesn’t become overwhelmed by these costs. Immigrant advocates are mobilizing; as social justice lawyers and students, it is our job to promote an understanding of the legal arguments available in this fight.

Anne has put together two sets of links for further reading — one comprising legal sources, news and commentary, the other a collection of “know your rights” and other materials for community education and organizing

Insights into working with children and youth

“Working with Youth” was the topic of yesterday’s panel discussion among Alysha Clark and Brianna Shaw, both Temple Law students, and Liz Yeager, of the HIAS Immigrant Youth Advocacy Project. The panel was part of a Social Justice Advocacy Institute created by Rubin-Presser Fellows Paige Joki and Sela Cowger and supported by the Sheller Center.

Ms. Yeager discussed the challenges of representing children and youth in the stressful context of immigration proceedings. And Ms. Clark and Ms. Shaw, both of whom had had years of personal experience as wards of the child welfare system, spoke candidly about how it had felt to have lawyers, social workers, judges and others intervene in their lives.  Some key themes: really listening (too often, young people are talked at, or talked around); accountability – i.e., doing what we say we’re going to do, an especially important issue for young people who have experienced too many broken promises; and managing our resources as advocates so as to be able to help clients most effectively.

Alysha Clark commented: “Conversations like this are the perfect start to understanding what forms and methods of advocacy are effective with youth and which are not so effective. It is particularly excellent to have these conversations early in our legal careers.”  And Brianna Shaw put it this way: “It’s important for all attorneys to be knowledgeable about working with youth because it comes up in so many aspects of public interest work. Oftentimes, we take our own personal experiences as youth for granted — but a lot can be learned from situating yourself in the shoes of youthful clients.”

A victory for families

Kameelah Davis-Spears, a Philadelphia parent, was stunned when her child was sent to a juvenile delinquency facility as the result of a fight in school. She got a second shock when, after his return home, she got a summons — for child support.

It turned out that the “child support” was money that she was going to have to pay the City to cover the cost of her son’s incarceration. Upset, she asked the City’s lawyer whether she should get legal advice. His reply, she said, made clear to her that she had better just start paying.

Fast forward through months of garnished wages, which put a hole in the family’s already-inadequate budget, to yesterday’s hearing before a committee of City Council. The hearing was prompted by the release of Double Punishment, a report by Justice Lab students Wesley Stevenson (3L), Kelsey Grimes (3L), and Sela Cowger (3L). With help from Prof. Colleen Shanahan, the students had conducted a months-long investigation on behalf of their client, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project.

Wes, Ms. Davis-Spears, Lauren Fine of YSRP, and others testified before a crowd of parents, child advocates, City officials, social service personnel, Sheller Center supporters (including Steve and Sandy Sheller), and others. Council members, who clearly saw the practice as unjust, expressed appreciation for the students’ work.

And the hearing brought one more surprise: an announcement by Cynthia Figueroa, Commissioner of the City’s Department of Human Services, that the City will put an end to the practice. As the witnesses and Council members pointed out, that announcement is only a first step; making sure that collection efforts actually stop will take work. But it’s a victory — and, in an era in which fines, fees, and forfeitures are exacting double and triple punishment from poor families, it’s national (as well as local) news.

At the end of a long day, Prof. Shanahan delivered her own verdict: “I’m so, so proud of our students.” So are all of us at the Sheller Center.

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 Wesley.stevenson@temple.edu.

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.

Center files brief on traumatizing effects of long-term detention on children

The Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, together with the Villanova Farmworker Clinic, has filed an amicus brief in support of the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Human Services’ decision to revoke the license of the Berks County Family Detention Center.  That decision has been appealed by Berks County, which the federal government pays to confine immigrant families at the Center. For more information about the Center, see our publications page.

Our brief was filed on behalf of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, plus a number of physicians, psychologists, social workers, and nurses. Many of these individuals have visited the facility and and found that it poses a severe and unjustified risk to children’s health, mental health, safety and well-being. The brief documents abuses at the Center and argues that its operation violates Pennsylvania law. In a similar case, a Texas court recently found that family detention facilities there violated the state’s human services law.

Human Rights First and the Shut Down Berks Coalition also provided crucial assistance for the Center’s brief.

“First lockup, then debt”: Philly practice of charging parents for their children’s incarceration hits the news

Earlier this year, Justice Lab students Wesley Stevenson, Kelsey Grimes, and Sela Cowger, in collaboration with the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, began to investigate Philadelphia’s practice of billing families for the cost of incarcerating their children. The students’ efforts caught the attention of the Inquirer, which ran an in-depth article on the practice today, with quotes from student Wes Stevenson and Clinical Professor Colleen Shanahan.

Besides noting the hardship imposed on Philadelphia households, the article points out that the city’s practice reflects a national pattern in which juvenile justice systems are increasingly passing on their costs to families already living in poverty.

After receiving the Justice Lab analysis and working with the students since last spring, City officials told the Inquirer that they want to end the practice of billing parents, and are in discussions with the state Department of Human Services.  (Meanwhile, the private attorney who does the collections under a contract with the City told the paper that being billed for their children’s incarceration can actually help families, “because once the child‐support payments end, it’s like getting ‘a raise.’” )

For the full article, click here.