In the summer issue of our newsletter, we let you know about a package of anti-prisoner bills that had recently passed through the House Judiciary committee. The worst of these bills (HB2386) was introduced by Montgomery County Representative Todd Stephens and proposed taking 25 percent of a prisoner’s wages and 75 percent of all deposits into personal accounts to be deducted for any fees, costs, and restitution that person owes. Additional legislation proposed increased costs on people found guilty or placed in diversionary programs to raise money for the crime victims fund (HB2134, introduced by Rep. Masser); diverting people’s tax refunds to pay court debts (HB2382, introduced by Rep. Kula); garnishing wages to pay court debts (HB2383, introduced by Rep. Toepel); making it easier for counties to collect court debts using collections agencies (HB2384, introduced by Rep. Costa); and diverting bail money to pay any owed costs and fines (HB2385, introduced by Rep. Delozier).
Upon learning of this legislation, Decarcerate PA mobilized people to call and write their legislators and ask them to vote against these bad bills. On September 16th, a group of us traveled to Harrisburg to meet with legislators and tell them to vote no on all six bills. We met with about 30 legislators or their staff, outlined why we thought these bills were bad for prisoners, their families, and the state as a whole, and gave them a packet of additional information. Some legislators made commitments to vote against the bills, including some members of the House Judiciary Committee who had previously voted for them.
On October 3rd, Representative Mike Vereb introduced another bad bill, HB2533. Called the “Revictimization Relief Act,” the bill allows victims, District Attorneys, and the Attorney General to sue people who have been convicted of “personal injury” crimes for speaking out publicly if it causes the victim of the crime “mental anguish.” The bill was written in response to political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal’s pre-recorded commencement speech at Goddard College, and is a clear attempt to silence Mumia and other prisoners and formerly incarcerated people. We believe that this legislation is not actually designed to help victims, but is a cynical move by legislators to stop people in prison from speaking out against an unjust system.The bill is also a clear violation of the First Amendment. Unfortunately, the PA General Assembly didn’t think so, and they fast-tracked the bill for approval by amending a different bill (SB508) to include the same language.
We mobilized quickly, calling on our allies across the nation for a national call-in day against SB508. Hundreds of people made calls, but unfortunately the legislature was set on attacking free speech, and the bill passed unanimously in the House and 37-11 in the Senate. The Abolitionist Law Center, the Amistad Law Project, and the MacArthur Justice Center, representing Mumia Abu-Jamal and Prison Radio, have already filed a lawsuit to challenge this bill in federal court. If this bill has dissuaded you from speaking out publicly and you want to help with the lawsuit, please write to Amistad Law Project at P.O. Box 9148, Philadelphia, PA 19139.
At the close of the legislative session, only SB508 had passed through the General Assembly, and the Stephens bill (HB2386) had been stalled indefinitely. Delozier, Costa, Toepel, and Masser's bills did pass the House but did not advance through the Senate Judiciary committee. Several of the legislators we met with voted against the Masser and Delozier bills, and Representative Dean even spoke out against the Masser bill on the House floor. Kula’s bill never made it to the House floor.
The fact that only one of these seven bills became a law during this session is a small victory for Decarcerate PA and for prisoners and their loved ones across the state. We will continue to fight against these bills and all legislation that threatens to hurt people caught up in the legal system and their loved ones.