Law Center amicus brief takes on unconstitutional probation detainers

July 2, 2019 – Pennsylvania has the highest rate of incarceration in the Northeast and the second highest rate of community supervision in the country. Probation violations that lead to probation detainers affect thousands of people across the Commonwealth and drive Pennsylvania’s mass incarceration crisis, sending thousands of people to state prison each year even though they have not had a trial or been convicted of a crime.

The Public Interest Law Center, together with the American Civil Liberties Union of Philadelphia (ACLU), recently filed an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit brought by the Defender Association of Philadelphia on behalf of Tyjear Davis challenging his probation detainer under the Pennsylvania Constitution in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Although the Supreme Court is usually an appellate court, in the underlying lawsuit, the Defender Association is asking the Court to take over the case as a matter of immediate public importance and to halt the illegal detainer practice. Our amicus brief “[provides greater] context regarding the scope of probation in Philadelphia, the profound consequences of detention, and the important state constitutional issues in the detainer scheme at issue.”

Read the amicus brief here.

In April, Tyjear Davis was arrested while still on probation. Following his arrest and an evaluation of his record, Davis was released without bail. However, Davis’ probation judge later determined he should be placed in detainer until his trial. This was done under the presumption that the “detention of certain groups of defendants [on probation] is necessary to protect the community or prevent flight or is justified on the commission of new crimes.”

Pennsylvania’s current detainer scheme is not only unconstitutional, but is an example of the systemic racism that remains prevalent in our criminal justice system.

Placing defendants in pretrial detention has incredibly detrimental effects on their personal well-being. Often, defendants are forced to bare unnecessary stress from financial burdens, job and housing insecurity, and family instability. In addition, detainer practices disproportionately target communities of color – Philadelphia is ranked eleventh in the nation when it comes to racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Pennsylvania’s current detainer scheme is not only unconstitutional, but is an example of the systemic racism that remains prevalent in our criminal justice system.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections’ mission “is to reduce criminal behavior by providing individualized treatment and [education; therefore,] resulting in successful community reintegration…” The reality is that the current detainer scheme does nothing but undermine their commitment to “enhancing public safety” as defendants, their families, and their communities are negatively impacted by the Department of Corrections’ unconstitutional practices.

In our brief, we argue that, if there had been a thorough examination of Pennsylvania’s robust due processing laws, this presumption of detention would be deemed unconstitutional, especially as it pertains to the commission of new crimes. Indeed, the Pennsylvania Constitution provides greater due process protection than the United States Constitution. Pennsylvania law demands that “whenever the liberty of an individual…is at risk, fundamental due process is essential.” Precedent shows that “…a mere arrest is not evidence of guilt nor a reliable indicator of the likelihood of future offending;” therefore, arrests should not be the catalyst for the detention of defendants on probation.

Read more about the case in this July 11 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Philly public defender suit seeks to blow up ‘unlawful’ probation detainers.”