criminal justice

Cash Grab: As Asset Forfeiture Quietly Expands Across Pa., Abuses Follow

Apr 24, 2019
Berks County, with the city of Reading, Pa. at its heart, has become a statewide leader in civil asset forfeiture.
Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads

 

Berks County narcotics detectives were ready to pounce.

From a distance, they spied Jose Veloz and Ambioris Cruz sitting in a 2005 Nissan Murano on a leafy residential block on Spring Street in Reading, Pa. The SUV was stashed with bags of heroin and about $5,000 in cash.

Veloz and Cruz thought they were about to pull off a lucrative drug deal, but police were one step ahead: Cops had flipped one of the pair’s associates against them. It was a setup.

Bryan Stevenson is a renowned lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that “is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.” The Equal Justice Initiative represents prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted, unfairly sentenced or otherwise mistreated by our criminal justice system.

BookMark: "Just Mercy" By Bryan Stevenson

Mar 7, 2019

Across the political spectrum, there is growing recognition of the criminal justice system’s failures. But despite some important reforms in recent years, a lot of work still needs to be done, as cruelty and racism continue to infect many aspects of criminal justice. It’s difficult to imagine a more compelling case for tackling these problems than the one found in Bryan Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy.”

Officers at the Cumberland County Prison walk the halls, Thursday, April 3, 2003, in Carlisle, Pa.
Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections has agreed to treat the state’s nearly 5,000 inmates with hepatitis C over the next three years as part of a federal court settlement expected to be finalized soon.

Advocates for prisoners have filed suits in about a dozen states as prisons have denied drugs to inmates in need because costs of the hepatitis C medication would strain limited prison budgets.

At the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia Thursday, the national anti-death penalty organization Witness to Innocence calls for Pennsylvania to abolish the death penalty.
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Witness to Innocence, a national anti-death penalty organization based in Philadelphia, staged an event in the city Thursday calling for Pennsylvania to abolish the death penalty.

Led by exonerated death row inmates, WTI uses the first-hand experiences of the wrongly convicted to push for an end to executions in the U.S. — calling the death penalty the biggest problem in a “fatally flawed” criminal justice system.

Steve Austin, a facilitator of Philadelphia's participatory defense program, talks about tapping the resources of the community that knows defendants.
Bastiaan Slabbers / Keystone Crossroads

It was an early autumn afternoon in 1975 — a moment that Steve Austin wishes he could take back.

Recalling that day recently, Austin took a deep breath, as if he were about to plunge into a deep, dark place.

“I killed a person. I took a person’s life,” he said. “It’s hard for me to talk about.”

Austin, 16 at the time, was selling ice cream at a street stand in his North Philadelphia neighborhood. That afternoon, he and a customer got into a heated exchange over a transaction.

Crystal Weimer was arrested in 2004 for third degree murder, a crime she didn’t commit. She spent nearly 12 years in prison and was exonerated on June 27, 2016, and all charges were dropped with prejudice.
Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Crystal Weimer’s nightmare began in 2004, when she was arrested for a crime she didn’t commit.

“When you go to jail, your whole family goes to jail,” Weimer said. “It’s just like a ripple effect — it’s just not you.”

She was charged with the murder of Curtis Haith, a 21-year-old who dreamed of becoming a chef.  Haith was shot in the face and beaten to death in front of his home in Fayette County, about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh.

Harold Shapiro

This interview originally aired on Feb. 9, 2018. Since then, the book won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction.  

"Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America" is a book that looks at how African American leaders–with the best intentions–made choices that eventually helped create mass incarceration.

Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna (middle) hosted a town hall in Philipsburg Tuesday night to address opioid addiction in the area. Cathy Arbogast (left) and Karlene Shugars (right) gave presentations as well.
Min Xian / WPSU

Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna hosted a town hall in Philipsburg Tuesday night to address opioid addiction in the area. Cantorna and other presenters want to remove the stigma surrounding addiction and provide resources for help.

“Someone has asked, ‘How as a family member do I help someone to get help?’’ Cantorna read and answered questions on index cards near the end of the town hall.

He said it’s important to engage the community when it comes to combating the opioid crisis, because the issue often has ripple effects.

Pennsylvania has the largest full-time legislature in the country.
Matt Rourke / AP Photo

A long-awaited study out of the Pennsylvania General Assembly offered a scathing assessment of the state’s capital punishment system this week, saying the death penalty comes at a high cost to state taxpayers without deterring crime.

A Lehigh County jail.
Jessica Kourkounis / Keystone Crossroads

Following a U.S. Department of Justice investigation in 2014, the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, demanding changes to provide better care for mentally ill inmates.

Richard Cho speaking at summit
Min Xian / WPSU

A nationwide initiative to reduce imprisonment of people with mental illness is hosting a two-day summit in State College on Monday and Tuesday. The Pennsylvania Stepping Up Summit calls for better practices in evaluating and treating mental illness.

Christian Leinbach is chairman of the Berks County Commissioners and has been working on the Stepping Up initiative since before it was launched in 2015. Leinbach said his county jail has about 1,000 people on a daily average. Over half of that population faces mental illness.