HARRISBURG – As lawmakers reconvene at the state capitol, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has released its third iteration of More Law, Less Justice: Pennsylvania’s Statehouse-to-Prison Pipeline, a report analyzing the General Assembly’s consideration of legislation related to criminal law. The statehouse-to-prison pipeline is the practice of introducing bills that create new crimes, enhance existing penalties, or expand current laws that result in more people going to prison or jail. The report details the acceleration of that practice.
The current crimes code was codified in 1972. In the ensuing decades, Pennsylvania lawmakers have created 2,000 “new” offenses and suboffenses, the vast majority of which cover behavior that was already illegal in 1972.
“Mass incarceration begins at the statehouse,” said Elizabeth Randol, legislative director at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The purpose of this report is to highlight the role and responsibility of the Pennsylvania General Assembly in fueling our state’s ongoing mass incarceration crisis.”
During the 2021-2022 legislative session, 308 “statehouse-to-prison pipeline bills” were introduced. Sixty-three of those bills—or 20 percent—were considered. And 18 pipeline bills were enacted, adding 8 new sentencing enhancements, 25 new offenses or suboffenses, and 50 new penalties to Pennsylvania law.
Compared to the previous two legislative sessions, legislators introduced and enacted more pipeline bills and outpaced the number of new crimes, penalties, and enhancements they added to Pennsylvania’s already bloated criminal code.
“None of these bills make Pennsylvanians any safer,” Randol continued. “And yet lawmakers insist on reaching for the same, broken tool in their toolbox. The mere introduction of so many of these bills signals to fellow legislators, stakeholders, news media, and others that the answer to almost everything legislators and others do not like is solved through criminalization and mass incarceration. We cannot arrest, convict, and incarcerate our way out of this crisis.”
The report recommends that Pennsylvania state legislators oppose any proposed legislation that adds new criminal offenses, penalties, or sentencing enhancements; increase their reliance on public defenders as stakeholders and experts when analyzing legislation; and subject legislation that proposes a new criminal offense to a crimes comparison to existing law and an impact statement regarding any racial or economic disparities that the new legislation might compound. The report also encourages legislators to decriminalize non-violent behavior, like drug consumption and consensual sex work.
You can find the report at aclupa.org/MLLJ2021-22.