War on Women in Pennsylvania: At Least a 20-Year Happening

Last week, Governor Tom “Just Close Your Eyes” Corbett signed into law Act 13 of 2013, also known as HB 818.  This newest attack in the War on Women denies women the ability to use THEIR OWN FUNDS to purchase coverage for an abortion within the new healthcare exchange that Corbett decided to fob off onto the federal government.  Although the state couldn’t be “bothered” with running this exchange, they have no problem in denying women the ability to purchase coverage for an abortion even in cases in which her life is endangered.

At the time of final passage of the bill I sent out an email to several friends listservs. Here are some of the comments I received back:

What is going on in PA?  It’s beginning to sound more & more like a North Dakota or a Kansas [or a Mississippi or an Arizona or a Wisconsin or a Texas or any other state that’s been taken over by misogynists and racists].  Terrible!!

If women aren’t allowed to spend money on their healthcare the way they deem medically necessary, then it’s time to face the fact that we’re not even citizens in our own states.

I agree with all of these sentiments.  Yet, these types of legislative actions have been going on in Pennsylvania for a long time, despite Pennsylvania having an ERA in our state Constitution and having already ratified the national ERA.

Bit of history of the War on Women in Pennsylvania.  We’ve been battling this War for over two decades in our legislature.  The battles started with attacks on reproductive justice and have now spread to other areas of women’s lives.

Reproductive Justice Battles

The Pennsylvania General Assembly has basically been co-opted by the radical right-wing on both sides of the aisle.  The Democrats do have more pro-choice people than the Republicans.  The Senate is a bit better than the House of Representatives.  And this has basically been true since the late 1980’s.

  1. Which is why Governor Bob Casey, Sr. (D) pushed through Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act that initially mandated parental consent, spousal consent, a 24-hour waiting period, and a state-mandated script about the “detriments” to health in abortion procedures.  Planned Parenthood contested the law that went all the way to the US Supreme Court in a case called Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. Decided on June 29, 1992, the Court threw out spousal consent as an “undue burden,” but upheld the rest of the law. This was one of the first battles partially won by the emerging War on women.  That was 21 years ago this week.
  2. Which is why Title X and state Family Planning monies are split 50/50 each year in the state budget between crisis pregnancy centers and legitimate family planning clinics.  And this has been happening for over a decade now. And in 2012, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R) proposed eliminating ALL funding for family planning for Planned Parenthood or any other clinic that provides abortion services.
  3. Which is why we are losing stand-alone abortion providers due to the TRAP (Targeted Regulations on Abortion Providers) law passed in December 2011 following “Dr.” Gosnell’s arrest and guilty verdict for murdering 9 live-born infants and one woman in a filthy, rat-infested facility that the state had not inspected despite complaints from legitimate providers for about 10 years.
  4. Which is why we almost had a transvaginal ultrasound law last year.  And for Governor Corbett’s “Just close your eyes” statement (Corbett’s comments on the ultrasound bill start at 14:28).  The main reasons I think it ultimately died in committee is thanks to the activists in VA who created the uproar there and because so many people, including doctors were outraged by the invasiveness of this bill and for Corbett’s insensitive statement (of which he is becoming more or more well-known for – he’s his own worst enemy).

Other Battles in the War on Women in Pennsylvania

And on other issues – similar actions have occurred.

Increasing Conservatism in the Legislature and Governorship

In 2010, the Tea Party and the radical right swept into office an even more anti-woman legislature and governor here in Pennsylvania.  The War on Women went into full swing.  Both houses of the General Assembly became even more heavily conservative, with the House switching from a Democratic- to a Republican-controlled majority and the state elected an anti-choice, anti-woman, and in my opinion, racist governor – Governor Tom Corbett (R).

To highlight how conservative the Pennsylvania General Assembly has become, just look at the 2012 ratings of legislators by the American Conservative Union.  They indicated that 51% of members in the combined Assembly are solid conservatives; 105 or 42% are given a score of 100 and an additional 22 or 9% are rated at 63 or higher.  The entire leadership of the majority party in both houses and thus those with the power to deny women, people of color, people with disabilities and people living in poverty their basic rights are listed in their report as so-called “Defenders of Liberty” or “Conservatives” because of their rating of, respectively, either 100 (13 of the 16 leaders) or 80 (the remaining 3 leaders).

Attack on Hate Crimes Protections

An updated hate crimes bill was initially passed in 2002 that added gender, gender identity, national origin, disability, and sexual orientation.  Because the radical right didn’t want to vote against adding sexual orientation coupled with disability and gender and thereby anger multiple constituencies within their district, a member of the House, proposed a late-night, end of session amendment in the 2001-2002 legislative session that substituted the hate crimes bill for an agricultural crimes bill.  The vote was overwhelmingly in favor, mostly because the legislators didn’t want to appear to be supporting hate crimes via a no vote (prior to this the then Republican majority had refused to bring up the bill for a committee vote). The radical right-wing appealed saying that this substitution violated the state’s constitutional mandate that any amendment has to be germane to the original intent of the bill.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed in July 23, 2008 that this procedure (but not the underlying intent) was unconstitutional and threw out the law.  It has been reintroduced every session since then with no hearing or vote in any committee in either house.

Attacks on Marriage Equality

In addition to having a state-based mini-DOMA (a state-level Defense of Marriage Act) on the books, Pennsylvania has had several attempts at adding this form of discrimination to our state constitution introduced every session for the last decade.  The major reasons they have not passed is that the House is even more conservative than the Senate and the two houses can’t agree on how extreme to make it.  There is another one that has been introduced in the General Assembly this year, but due to increasing support by the public for civil unions and marriage equality (almost 2/3 support throughout the state), they haven’t yet held any hearings.

Budgetary Attacks

One of the spears attacking women, families, and people of color since the takeover of our legislative and executive branches of government here in the state is the budget.

We have had severe cutbacks in state funding for education, health care, and human services since 2011.  According to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, spending on these three areas in the final budget for 2012-2013 that ends this week was either flat-lined (“welfare” programs) or reduced by 0.3% (for public school education), 15.9% (for higher education), and 37% to 45% (for Medical Assistance inpatient and outpatient care).

The proposed budget plan for 2013-2014 continues these cuts. Here are a couple of examples of this budgetary war:

Attacks to Eliminate Equality for All

In the very first budget introduced by Governor Corbett, every advocacy Commission in the Executive branch was eliminated in the 2011-2012 budget – this includes the Pennsylvania Commission for Women (which I served on until it was abolished), Latino Affairs, Asian-American Affairs, and African-American Affairs.  As you will see from the links to these commissions, there is no public information on who the commissioners are nor is the any information on the services any of these commissions provide.  Prior to the elimination of these commissions in 2011, the Commission for Women, for example, had an extensive web presence which included our mission (the only thing that now remains), hotline contact information, copies of reports written by the Commission, information on the advocacy being conducted by the Commission, and links to programs and services to broadly assist women.  Transparency has disappeared; this is another spear in the attacks with the War on Women here in Pennsylvania.

Like every other state, Pennsylvania has a commission that monitors, reviews and adjudicates alleged acts of discrimination; here in Pennsylvania that is the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). Severe budgetary cut-backs have occurred in the funding for the PHRC in every budgetary cycle since 2011.  An individual who works within the PHRC told me last month that as a result of these cuts, they are down 50% in staffing and that long-time civil rights advocates in the agency have either retired (some early) or left for other work.  And it’s not getting any better. The PHRC is flat-lined in this year’s budget.  We don’t yet know if this will still be true once the budget is passed, which theoretically must be done this week since our state constitution requires passage by June 30 of each year.

Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering is part of the War on Women due to its impact on legislation directly affecting women’s lives. Gerrymandering here in Pennsylvania, aka the “Gerrymander of the Decade,” has entrenched the right-wing Republicans in both the General Assembly and the Pennsylvania Congressional delegation.  This, despite the fact that there are many more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state.

Being a Democratic legislator, as we all know doesn’t guarantee concern for women’s rights (think Senator Bob Casey, Jr. and his father, former Governor Bob Casey, Sr.). But in these days and times, it’s less likely to cause a problem for us than do the Tea-Party dominated Republicans.

The most recent vote in the General Assembly is a clear example of what gerrymandering has done to the legislature.

Gerrymandering, combined with the elections resulted in the passage of HB 818/Act 13 this month. Tea Party Republican conservatives won many of their races in 2010 and 2012, taking control and leadership of both houses in 2011.  In the House there are 111 Republicans and 92 Democrats.  On April 24, 2013, all but 2 Republicans (98%) voted against and all but 32 Democrats (65%) voted for women’s reproductive justice. In the Senate there are 28 Republicans and 22 Democrats. On June 5, 2013, all but 2 Republicans (93%) voted against and all but 5 Democrats (77%) voted for women’s reproductive justice.

State and Federal ERA

Another comment that was made when I sent out my email was about passing the federal Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The person said,

This is the reason we need to be included in the Constitution of the United States!  One of main ways to stop bills like this is to pass the ERA and thus be admitted as full-fledged citizens of the US.

Before the War on Women started, Pennsylvania passed a state-based ERA that was voted on by the electorate and placed into Section I of the Pennsylvania Constitution in 1971.

Yet even with this state-based ERA, the War on Women is being raged here in Pennsylvania.  Sometimes the state ERA works and sometimes it doesn’t.  It worked back in the 1980’s when Pat and Twiss Butler worked with Pennsylvania NOW to get gender-based auto insurance rates eliminated.  But it didn’t work in 2008 when a woman sued her employer using the state ERA based on sexually offensive comments made by her supervisor but not stopped by the company.

Many people, in frustration have made statements or created nicknames to replace the official monikers of “City or State of Brotherly Love” and the “Cradle of Independence.”  A couple of the pejoratives include “Pennsyltuky” and “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in the middle” (this latter one is attributed to James Carville)  The progressive parts of the state (for the citizenry, but not necessarily the full legislature) are currently Philadelphia and SE PA, the capital Harrisburg (to some minor extent) and Centre County where I live.  Pittsburgh is still itself progressive, but Allegheny County (where Pittsburgh is located) has become very, very conservative and thus more like the “T” (the term used to describe the rural part of the state outside of the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia regions).

Yes, it is frustrating.  But as a “cock-eyed optimist” (something I’ve often been called), I continue to push back and sometimes we get things that are a bit better than they would have been otherwise.  Much of our work is being done in coalition these days.  I won’t stop my push-back against this War on Women.  I will continue my multi-decade work and will continue to shout from the mountain top whenever and wherever needed.  As will others (see for example, an article in Politico about the War on Women battle for the Pennsylvania governorship gearing up here in Pennsylvania).

Be a “cock-eyed” optimist.  Get the ERA passed and stop this state and national War on Women. As Margaret Mead said,

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Pittsburgh: Do NOT Backtrack on Domestic Violence Protections

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a debate erupted in the Pittsburgh City Council meeting on  Wednesday, May 1, 2013 when Councilman Ricky Burgess presented a proposal to throw out the ordinance that established a zero tolerance policy in the city code for police-perpetrated domestic violence.  This was a last-minute amendment to a package of bills that was designed to improve police handling of calls received about domestic violence within the city.

After a two-hour long, heated debate, Council seems to have separated the two issues – domestic violence within the community and the police perpetrated domestic violence policy.  They will continue the discussion in their meeting on Wednesday, May 8.

What is going on?  Why would Pittsburgh even think of backtracking on the 2007 ordinance that was created to ensure that individuals with a history of domestic violence were not hired, be promoted, nor be allowed to continue employment after committing domestic violence while employed or being considered for employment within the police department? As explained in Chapter116, Department of Public Safety, Section III  of this ordinance, the purpose of the police-perpetrated domestic policy is, in part, to

“delineate a position of zero tolerance by the Bureau. It is imperative to the integrity of the profession of policing and the sense of trust communities have in their local law enforcement agencies that leaders, through the adoption of clear policies, make a definitive statement that domestic violence will not be tolerated.”

So if you want the community to trust your police and believe in their integrity, why would you throw out this ordinance?  And why would you attempt to do this when the intent of the proposal was to improve how police deal with cases of violence in the community?

I believe that there are three issues embedded within this debate.  First, Pittsburgh (and many other communities throughout the country) needs to ensure that cases of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault are appropriately handled whenever a call comes into 911 emergency services. Second, there should be no backtracking on the zero-tolerance ordinance.  And third, these two issues are separate issues that should not and cannot constitutionally be commingled. Here’s my take on these three issues.

Police Handling of Domestic Violence Calls

Why this is an issue in Pittsburgh

On December 31, 2012, according to many reports (including this one), Pittsburgh’s 911 services received a cell phone call from Ka’Sandra Wade asking for police to come to her home. The call was truncated.  The officers went, some 10 minutes later after they were done with another call and then called in to determine what was next.  A man would not let them into the door, but through a window told the officers that everything was all right. The officers claim that since the phone call was not from a land line, they did not know whether Ka’Sandra was home, even though she requested officers to come to her home.  They claim that they did not know it was a call about violence.  They lurked about for several more minutes, looking around the house, but then left.

The Officers never spoke directly to Ms. Wade, taking the word of the man at the door that refused to let them in to talk to Ka’Sandra.  She was found dead the next day.  When her boyfriend was confronted in his suburban residence, he said on a note that the officers could have saved Ka’Sandra, and he killed himself.

The Model Domestic Violence Community Policing Policy

According to the model policy by the International Association of Chiefs of Police on responding to potential domestic violence calls, 911 communications centers and police officers should

  1. Assign a priority response to all domestic ­violence calls, whether or not the assailant is known to be on the premises;

  2. Keep the caller on the telephone if the caller is a victim or witness to a domestic violence incident in progress in order to relay ongoing information provided by the caller to the responding officers and remain aware of ­victim’s safety;

  3. Not cancel the original call for service even if a subsequent request to cancel the original call is received; and

  4. Make contact with all residents of the house, all potential witnesses, victims, and perpetrators [emphasis added]….In evaluating the information, officers should take into account the credibility of the persons ­supplying the information and whether there is a reasonable basis for believing the information.

Pittsburgh has not, to my knowledge, instituted this model policy.  As reported in the press, none of these basic protocol actions were taken in this case.  Rather than immediately dispatching police to the scene, the police delayed their response for ten minutes.  They also took the word of only one resident – the man who refused to let them in – rather than talking to the original caller.  911 knew it was a woman that called, not a man. And yet they used his statement to cancel the request for service.  Which may have resulted in Ka’Sandra’s death after they left.  Note, she may have been dead already; however it is presumed that she was murdered after the police left based on the suicide note left stating that the officers could have saved her life.

Actions Taken Since January

People in the community quickly called for action to improve first responders’ behavior.  At the Action United vigil held for Ka’Sandra after her death, one of the speakers said that Action United would convene a group to craft policy to change how first responders act in cases of domestic violence.  That was on a Saturday.  The following Monday, Pittsburgh City Councilman Ricky Burgess announced that he would convene a “group of professionals” to make recommendations to Council on how to handle these types of cases.  The result of this announcement was a series of closed-door, by-invitation-only meetings that resulted in two specific strategies to address the issue:

  1. Instituting the Maryland Lethality Assessment as a tool for police to use when responding to calls that could include issues of domestic violence and
  2. Creating a Domestic Violence Advisory Board (aka “task force’) as described in the Violence Against Women Act. This board would include representatives from organizations and institutions serving the needs of domestic violence victims to “provide policy guidance and make recommendations to the Public Safety Department [includes the bureaus of Police, Fire, EMS, Emergency Management, Building Inspection and Animal Care & Control] about best practices for law enforcement response to Domestic Violence.”  

Although this Domestic Violence Advisory Board sounds like it might help,  some advocates are not clear that creating a new board is necessory or appropriate.  There currently is a Citizen Police Review Board that reviews and makes recommendations on how to improve police services within Pittsburgh. There is also a Domestic Violence Committee that deals with all employees. So if this new board is created, would it be duplicating the oversight currently held by these other boards or not? Or is the problem not that there is no oversight, but that the police have ignored recommendations by these oversight boards that are already in place?

Although many people and most of the community’s advocates for ending domestic violence were left out of these discussions, these two strategies crafted into two ordinances (see here and here) and one resolution might help address some of what happened on December 31, 2013.

These bills were part of Wednesday’s Council meeting and will be discussed again next week.  A broader discussion and eventual passage of these ordinances could help ensure that cases of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault are appropriately handled whenever a call comes into 911 emergency services.

Don’t Backtrack

At this Council meeting on May 1, Councilman Ricky Burgess caused a real ruckus when he proposed and presented a last minute proposal to throw out the ordinance that established a zero tolerance policy in the city code for police-perpetrated domestic violence.

As the meeting was beginning, Councilman Burgess distributed a proposed amendment to one piece of legislation containing two paragraphs that referenced a part of what the Working Group had discussed last Friday.  The rest of the pages were an Amendment by Substitution of the portion of the City Code that would gut the Police/Officer-Involved Domestic Violence legislation passed in 2007. 

My girlfriend, Audrey Glickman, posted a couple of comments on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article regarding the debate and ruckus that occurred in this city council meeting.  Audrey was the person in 2007 who volunteered and coordinated the group of advocates that worked with former Councilman Doug Shields to craft the zero tolerance policy.  Here’s what she said about the sudden and unexpected back-tracking proposed by Councilman Burgess (I’m combining two of her comments so that you can see the history of the zero-tolerance policy):

This set of bills (and especially the amendment dunked in at the last minute with no knowledge or prior discussion among other Council persons) does not really address the details surrounding the tragedy attending Ka’Sandra Wade, may she rest in peace.  The response of the police – their not suspecting DV immediately, nor apparently even thinking of it, is what needs to be addressed.  The commission of DV by Pittsburgh’s Police Officers and the law that since 2007 has covered it well, and could save potential victims and prevent future lawsuits against the City, should not be up for discussion at all, much less as an amendment by substitution tossed on the Council table like so much trash.

There should be zero tolerance for all City employees committing domestic violence.  But the City Solicitor’s inability (as stated at the Council table) to defend having “zero tolerance” in the Police legislation – in a state in which, according to the representative from the Solicitor’s Office sitting at the Council table today, cities are allowed by law to hold police to a higher standard – is not a reason to eliminate zero tolerance from the Police/DV legislation [emphasis added].

The pieces of legislation that were supposed to be on the table would (1) enact a Lethality Assessment as in Maryland, to help discern issues and teach Police;  (2) fund that effort;  and (3) create a council to oversee DV.  None of that has anything to do with the legislation passed in 2007.

The 2007 legislation serves to prevent the heads of our Police force from getting away with committing DV by virtue of their position; serves to protect our City from a lawsuit such as the one Tacoma, Washington, faced, and had to pay $16 million to the family of the late wife of their police chief; and serves to define the specific policy – in detail – that the Bureau of Police must keep on the books.

The law (already in the City Code, passed in 2007) concerning police *committing* domestic violence was based on a model policy by the IACP [International Association of Chiefs of Police], was hammered out by a huge working group who did not always agree with each other, and when passed it was praised from coast to coast.

The original [2007] legislation was crafted through discussion among dozens of individuals. We had input from national experts and local service providers of all stripes. Everyone researched for months, years even. Emasculating this law would serve no one well.

Creating a political and divisive issue out of a law that was duly passed in 2007 and lauded from coast to coast is pointless and untenable.  Domestic violence is not a political football.  Some of the Councilpersons who spoke at the table referred to it as a women’s issue, but in truth DV is committed against women and men, the young and the old, the suspecting and the unsuspecting.

Council should leave the legislation already on the books alone, and find some way to teach the Police to consider potential DV when they respond to a call.

Audrey is right on the mark.  The zero-tolerance policy is based on model legislation created by Chiefs of Police across the country. It is good legislation. Don’t backtrack now.

Commingling Two Separate Issues

My final concern about what happened is that this last minute amendment to insert police-perpetrated domestic violence into issues concerning how officers respond to domestic violence calls is a commingling of two separate issues.  Audrey  put it this way in her Post-Gazette comment:

[Council ended the discussion of the bills with a] lousy one-week hold when large discussions and public hearings and real research are warranted to hash out whether there is any value at all to that poison-pill portion, which again had nothing to do with the original bills.

Nothing. It has nothing to do with the subject of the original bills. The original bills concerned officers *responding to* domestic violence calls. The poison pill concerned police officers *committing* domestic violence.

There is a world of difference. The former is a more prevalent issue and is the one at hand; the latter is a more delicate issue, and has already been successfully addressed [in 2007].

In addition, the introduction of police-perpetrated violence into a bill on police response through substitution, particularly at the last minute, may be unconstitutional according to the PA Constitution.  I am basing this on a Supreme Court opinion from 2008 when they overturned the expansion of Pennsylvania’s Ethnic Intimidation (Hate Crimes) Act.  Here’s what went down in that case.

In 2002, the Pennsylvania General Assembly updated its statutes to define ethnic intimidation as committing a crime “with malicious intention toward the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity of another individual or group of individuals (Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, 2003; bolded items were added in the 2002 legislation).” However, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in 2007 overturned the expansion in a case called Marcavage v. Rendell. They opined that  the final version of the bill, which initially dealt with the crime of crop destruction, changed its original purpose during the amendment process at the last minute.

The Commonwealth Court stated and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed in 2008 that this law was enacted in violation of Article III, Sections 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. As a result, hate-crime protections for gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability were eliminated from the state’s hate crimes law.

This hate crimes law started off as a crimes bill dealing with a crime of crop destruction.  A crime, but in a different area.  In Pittsburgh, the initial intent and focus of the bills in Pittsburgh was responding to domestic violence.  The substitute proposed by Councilman Burgess focuses on a different area of violence – police or officer-initiated domestic violence.  Two different issues.  A world of difference. And I suspect, if it passes next week, could successfully be argued in court to have been unconstitutionally redacted under the first three sections of Article III of the Pennsylvania Constitution (Article III, Section 4 deals with bills within the General Assembly and is not germane to local legislation).

Actions Needed

The Working Group convened in January, although not completely open and transparent, did came up with two strategies focusing on how police should respond to cases of domestic violence.

Due the confusion that ensued during the public session on May 1, it is unclear whether the proposed amendment was amended in Council to be reduced only to the two paragraphs referring to the work of the Working Group or if the amendment by substitution is still on the table.  Removing the substitute amendment had been the intention of Councilman O’Connor during the debate; but it is believed he withdrew the amendment in the confusion that ensued.

One week may be enough time to discuss finalizing the legislation that was originally discussed by the Working Group.  It is nowhere near enough time to discuss deleting a good piece of legislation—the police-perpetrated domestic violence ordinance—from the City Code, nor should such a discussion be endeavored.  That law has nothing at all to do with what happened to Ka’Sandra Wade.  Weakening that law we would do nothing but tarnish Ka’Sandra’s memory.

On Wednesday, May 8, 2013, these bills will be taken up again in Committee. There will be public comment at the opening of the legislative and standing committee meetings on  Wednesday. These committee meetings officially start at 10:00 AM (but they do sometimes begin late). You should show up in droves.  People can have up to three minutes each to comment.  Come, stand up and be heard.  Tell Council

  1. Don’t backtrack on the 2007 police-perpetrated/officer-initiated domestic violence ordinance. It has nothing to do with the subject of the original bills and could be an unconstitutional overturn of the ordinance as described above;
  2. Institute the Maryland Lethality Assessment tool; and
  3. Discuss how and if the creation of the Domestic Violence Advisory Board would improve police response to domestic violence.  Duplication of duties and effort by multiple oversight boards could muddy rather than clear the waters. Only if it becomes clear that this new board would help should this proposal be enacted.

It is incumbent on all concerned to be vigilant.  Don’t backtrack.  But do do the right thing and make sure that police handle cases of domestic violence properly so that there are no more cases like that of Ka’Sandra Wade ever happen again.

Picture of Joanne Tosti-Vasey standing with sign that says "I AM Ending Violence"

Joanne Tosti-Vasey “Refusing to be Silent” and calling for an end to all forms of violence, including domestic violence

Additional Info After Posting This Blog

After I posted this blog, I had a phone and email conversation with Doug Shields.

He is the former President of Pittsburgh City Council who sponsored of the 2007 ordinance on police-perpetrated domestic violence.  He asked if I would continue spreading the word about what’s going down in Pittsburgh regarding domestic violence protections.  Here is a copy of his email call for action:

“As you know, we all fought hard and long to enact an Ordinance that began to address issues related to police officers and domestic violence.  This came about due to the Mayor’s promotion of three officers who had significant issues related to domestic violence.

Over the past few months, a task force, formed to shape legislation that addresses the lack of clear protocols in responding to a domestic violence call, worked to provide an appropriate response.  As a result, the Council was about to enact the so-called “Maryland Protocol” this week.

Numerous people who had worked hard to get this legislation to the Council table were shocked to find upon introduction, the sponsor, Councilman Burgess, had without notice, took the opportunity to delete the entire section of the Ordinance that was enacted in December of 2011.

When the bill passed finally in 2007, I had tears in my eyes.  It was the only time that ever occurred.

Now this.  Blog by Joanne Tosti-Vasey (See: https://civilrightsadvocacy.net/2013/05/03/pittsburgh-no-dv-backtracking/)

I write to ask you for help to have a strong presence at next Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s Council meeting to utilize the public comment portion of the meeting to condemn this action by Councilman Burgess and to show strong support for the law we need and fought so hard to get.  

Unfortunately, your voice is needed again to defend that which we all worked on for so long.

The members who defended the bill were:  Bill Peduto, Patrick Dowd, Corey O’Connor, Natalia Rudiak and Bruce Kraus.

Those who joined with Mr. Burgess were, President Darlene Harris, Daniel Lavelle, and Theresa Kail-Smith.

Well worth watching this Council meeting, which repeats on air Sunday at 10:00 and 7:00 (Comcast City Channel 13), and which will soon be posted on line at the City’s Legislative Information Center.

Those who cannot be there on Tuesday or Wednesday at 10 AM are encouraged to  email or call the Council to convey their support for the Ordinance.  

Here is the link:    http://pittsburghpa.gov/council/

Here are the contacts for those who were ready to repeal the Ordinance.

Thank you for your anticipated cooperation in this matter.  Please also share this missive with others who would be interested in this issue.

Douglas Shields

Former President of Pittsburgh City Council

Prime sponsor of the Police & Domestic Violence Ordinance”

Voting Rights for Felons and Ex-Cons

vote button

Voting Rights for Felons and Ex-Cons

Yesterday, a friend of mine called me.  She said that she had been talking to a woman whose partner had a felony record who had served his time for the crime.  Among the several issues they discussed was his frustration that he was no longer able to vote.  Like many people, my friend and the couple she was talking to me about all believe that once someone has been found guilty of a felony, they face a lifetime ban on their constitutional right to vote.

Since primary season is coming up in many places around the country and since most states have voter registration deadlines before their primary election day, I thought I’d provide some background information on this issue.

What is the myth?

Simply stated, the myth is that ex-cons cannot vote – once convicted and forever afterwards. There are at least two errors in this myth:

  • Except for a narrow category of crimes in Mississippi, disenfranchisement does not occur in any state if you are found guilty of a misdemeanor crime.  Even if you spend time in jail for that misdemeanor.
  • Voter disenfranchisement for people with a felony conviction differs by state.  Eleven states permanently disenfranchise some or all current and former felons from voting, but most don’t.

So it all depends on where you live. Here’s what I found out about state laws on this issue from the Brennan Center for Justice

Permanent Disenfranchisement for All Felons

Only four states – Iowa, Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia – permanently disenfranchise current and former felons from voting.  The only way for a person to have their voting rights reinstated is through an “individual rights restoration” process set up by each state.

Permanent Disenfranchisement for Some but Not All Felons

Seven states permanently disenfranchise some, but not all current and former felons from voting.

In Arizona, if someone is convicted of two or more felonies, the right to vote is permanently denied.

In the other six states in this category, you need to check your state law to determine which felony convictions permanently deny you the right to vote. Here’s a quick summary of these laws.

  • In Alabama, you can be permanently barred from voting if your crime is listed in their disenfranchisement list. If the conviction is a “moral turpitude” type of conviction, you can have your voting rights restored upon completion of your sentence and payment of fines and fees.
  • In Delaware, voting after incarceration can be reinstated five years post-incarceration unless the crime you committed is one among a list of crimes that permanently disenfranchises your right to vote.
  • In Mississippi, you permanently lose your right to vote if you are convicted of any of ten categories of crime, whether that crime is a felony or misdemeanor.  If your crime isn’t on this list, you can vote even while incarcerated.  Note, this is the only state that has a law that permanently bans voting for someone who has created a misdemeanor.
  • In Nevada, if someone is convicted of two or more felonies, the right to vote is permanently denied.  People convicted of violent crimes at any time are permanently barred from voting. Nevada will restore those rights if a pardon is granted or if the court where the conviction originally occurred restores those rights.
  • In Tennessee, if your crime is on the list of crimes that permanently bar you from voting, then you can only have these rights reinstated if you are pardoned.  For all other crimes, you can have your voting rights restored upon completion of your sentence, payment of fines and fees, and show that you are up to date on all child support payments.
  • In Wyoming, you can have your voting rights restored five years post-incarceration for first-time non-violent crimes.  All others are permanently disenfranchised unless pardoned by the Governor.

Voting Rights Restored Upon Completion of Incarceration, Probation, and Parole

Nineteen states – Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin – restore your rights to vote upon completion of your sentence, which includes incarceration, probation, and parole.

In Nebraska, one additionally has to wait two years after completing the sentence before being allowed to vote.

In Washington state, you can lose your right to vote again if you haven’t paid your financial obligations after completing your sentence.

Voting Rights Restored After Incarceration and/or Probation

Five states – California, Colorado, Connecticut, New York, and South Dakota – allow you to vote once you have completed your sentence and/or probation.

In New York, those on probation can have their voting rights restored if they receive either a “Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or a Certificate of Good Conduct.”

Voting Rights Immediately Restored After Incarceration

Fifteen states – the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Utah – immediately restore voting rights upon one’s release from jail or prison. There are no voting restrictions for people on parole or serving probation time.

No Restrictions on Voting for People with a Criminal Record

And just two states – Maine and Vermont – allow anyone otherwise eligible to vote regardless of criminal conviction to vote. Even while incarcerated, on probation, or parole.

Who is most likely to be impacted by this disenfranchisement?

According to the ACLU, people and communities of color are most often disparately impacted by felony disenfranchisement laws. There are over 5.3 million people in the United States that are barred from voting due to a criminal conviction.  The majority of these crimes are non-violent.

Of the 5.3 million disenfranchised, 1.4 million or 26 percent of people with a criminal conviction are African-American citizens.  Considering that black persons make up just 13 percent of the national population, one can immediately see that if you are Black, you are twice as likely to have your voting rights denied.  This means that one in 13 African-Americans across the country are being denied their right to vote.

The myth of an ex-con never being allowed to vote compounds this issue. As previously stated, many believe that once convicted, they can never vote again.

With a widespread belief in this myth as well as a lack of public education to refute it, more and more ex-cons are at risk of not regaining their right to vote. Since actual disenfranchisement disparately impacts people of color, this assumption exacerbates this form of discrimination.

In my opinion, little is done by the government, courts, and communities to educate people and communities about their voting rights when one has been sentenced for a crime.  Exceptions to this come from only a few, non-profit advocacy sources, including the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Prison Policy Initiative, and the Sentencing Project.   There are others, but I believe that these four contain the best resources.

What do you need to do to get registered?

If your state is one of the states that do not permanently disenfranchise people who have completed their sentence (or if you live in Maine or Vermont which has no felony restrictions on voting), you should check out what your state law is regarding registering to vote.  The federal government has a website that has basic information on how to register and what the registration deadlines are by state.  It also has links to every state’s election office website where you can get details about state-specific requirements for voter eligibility.

If you know or believe that you have the right to vote in your state despite having a criminal history and receive a denial to vote when you attempt to register, you should check with an organization that provides legal services to people who have been incarcerated.  You can find a listing of these organizations by state here.  If your state isn’t listed, then the Prison Policy Initiative suggests that you contact one of the national groups that provide voter disenfranchisement assistance.

Once you get registered, GO VOTE!  It’s your right.