jennifer's blog

11-22-12

Five years ago, Thanksgiving, I wrote this. I knew I had found something good (though I didn't yet know that included someone who would love me, justice, and Philadelphia sports teams with more or less equal burning intensity).

This fall Dan and I got married. And this morning we were up in Bucks County, seeing the movie 'Lincoln' with my parents. To count just some blessings:

Getting to see that movie with my dad, who now lives at home despite sudden severe disability, thanks only to our still-present social safety net that gives him the choice to live in his own home with my mom instead of being trapped in a nursing home.

The fact that in this election enough Americans used their votes to make clear they want a country that sees us all having a stake in each other.

That there are advocates who fight for a fair shot for all who are treated as expendable: those working to restore lifeline state 'general assistance' benefits after they were torn away earlier this year through cowardly political maneuvering, as today's important piece sharply reminded us; those who are trying to cut through the many financial and political agendas in order to actually focus on what makes schools work for their students; and, always, those who daily devote themselves to people suffering addiction and trauma, giving a small or large beacon of kindness and understanding to people in the darkest places.

Thank you. These are "the ripples of hope" that travel out through the world, to quote Bobby Kennedy via that video where our president cried while saying thank you to the people who worked to elect him in hopes of moving us towards a more just world.

My Journal Entry in the Chronicles of "Trying to Fix the Vacant Land Problem"

I'd hoped to write here earlier about my work on all of this, the "land bank bill" introduced by Councilwoman Sanchez and the new vacant land policy being proposed by Mayor Nutter, and respond to some of the recent online discussion. No way it doesn't sound like an excuse, but I've been busy.

As most of you know, I work as a lawyer and legislative assistant in Maria Quinones Sanchez's office. There are a lot of ways I could spend my time in this job, and use my expensive education to try to help the city. But so far, since my focus is housing and vacant land, by far most of my time is spent navigating our land acquisition and disposition systems. That's helping, or failing to help, constituents get abandoned private land and publicly-owned land - elderly Puerto Rican couples who have been growing food across the street from their house for 20 years; nonprofits looking for more secure space; churches trying to stabilize their blocks; urban farmers; artists creating galleries; activists desperate to keep drug dealing and all the associate violence from metastasizing in empty buildings and lots. Nothing moves, or nothing moves without a truly epic amount of unnecessary work. It's Sisphysian. It's endless. It's wasting my time and my tax-funded salary. (For the record, it's not that big of a salary.)

Yesterday our great architecture columnist Inga Saffron meditated on Twitter that the problem moving that vacant land out of public inventory is "politics." (And, mostly mystifyingly, that "city policies and politics encourage owners to use vacant lots for parking, billboards & other unproductive uses.") This is seeing the symptoms and misdiagnosing the disease.

As far as I see, glaring problem number 1 is our lack of modern and coherent computerized infrastructure to manage vacant land. Glaring problem number 2 is current policies for acquisition, disposition, and pricing that do not match the needs or market conditions of most neighborhoods in the city. Both of those keep land stuck for years, often decades. Our Council office tries to help these stuck wheels move for our constituents and developers, but sometimes we are an obstruction. That's because glaring problem number 3 is lack of affirmative land use planning that would give us some metrics to agree what uses should go where. For a given proposed transaction, we don't get meaningful information about who the applicant is, what they want to do, whether they can actually do it, and then we have figure out whether we think what they want to do makes any sense, because we get no meaningful planning or policy guidance as to whether, say, selling a residentially-zoned lot to someone who lives a block away for parking is a good idea. Which is all not to defend or condemn "councilmanic privilege." But that practice exists now in the vacuum created by a dysfunctional system, and in part fills its gaps. If we get to a future system that is computerized, more transparent, and has written policies, the Council role in land disposition - whatever it ends up being - is going to function a lot differently.

Which brings me back to my first link, Patrick Kerkstra's article from this week about where we are with all this. If and when the city launches its "front door" to coordinate land sales, several big steps will have been taken. The Redevelopment Authority commissioned and is implementing a new database system that will contain files that are now inaccessible, and allow oversight and tracking of application status. That door will be at least cracked for more accurate pricing methods, appeal of absurd appraisals, and reduced or nominal price for a greater range of uses - uses the city already subsidizes one way or another and tries to encourage left and right in neighborhoods that have, as Dan pointed out in that Twitter conversation, negative land value.

But we'll still need a land bank, which is just a way of saying 'a more efficient vehicle for handling vacant land.' Otherwise there are still different agencies, different incentives and motivations, fragmented title, duplication and overlap, and time and money lost internally coordinating all of that. We've had massive cuts of the federal and state dollars that we've been using to run our current housing and land agencies and programs, and the cuts are continuing to come. We can't afford to leave the existing "alphabet soup" in place. We need to look top to bottom, probably with outside help from a foundation or university, and think about how we need to restructure that system to avoid duplication and get the most out of those shrinking resources.

The land bank bill, as introduced, is not meant to create a new and separate entity. It starts with the premise that whatever agency manages acquisition and disposition of surplus vacant land should have that as its mission and specialized focus (and the Public Property Department should be free to concentrate on managing active public facilities, and not need to play real estate agent). It also acknowledges that the Redevelopment Authority (PRA) must exist in some measure, because only it has legal power from the state to condemn blighted land for redevelopment. The land bank would exist in relationship to the PRA (either the PRA as an arm of the land bank, or vice versa) - one staff, one office space, but distinct rules and governance structures based on existing legal requirements and what fits the city's needs.

Some of the improvements mandated by the bill: a computerized, accessible inventory of public and privately owned vacant land; a system for getting ongoing notice of the status of vacant parcels; a strong role for community plans and the coming Comprehensive Plan; written policies that are updated biannually through a public process (a huge change!); requirement for ethics and conflict of interest policies, developed in the same public way; annual reporting.

But there's still a lot to figure out, including the best way to structure and improve Council's role in the process. Cleveland has a sign-off sheet, where all agencies, including the legislature, okay each transaction. We could have hearings, which have the advantage of being public but the disadvantage of taking time and resources. There's no magic answer, but the land bank is essentially a blank canvas to structure a system that actually makes sense, and the discussion is still active and open as to what that should look like - please continue to comment and give feedback, and please advocate loud and hard for change. The day I can permanently delete my Excel spreadsheets tracking hundreds of uncompleted property transfers seriously can not come soon enough.

Living in "Hamsterdam"

Some of you may know I work in the office of City Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez. The Seventh Councilmanic District starts a few blocks above Girard Avenue and slices up along the west side of Frankford and then Kensington Avenue, neatly avoiding any meaningful concentration of wealth or gentrification (Northern Liberties, Temple, Fishtown). If you think there is something fancy that might be in the district, like a beer garden or coffee shop or condoized factory, it turns out to be on the other side of the line. Instead the district sweeps in the remnants of our industrial corridors and the poor, vibrant but brutalized communities who were left living in that tiny two-story factory housing after successive waves of flight.

I work on housing and land issues, with a subspeciality in the variety of ways deeds are forged or otherwise stolen, and those stolen houses sold, mostly to unsuspecting unsophisticated Spanish-speaking victims who just want somewhere affordable to live. I try to figure out how to keep a slumlord's 400+ properties in foreclosure from being turned over to speculators or abandonment. I field calls from people trying to legitimately buy vacant lots, for side yards to keep the dealers out, or because they're the dealers and want to control the block. The names on those deeds are often Jewish people who left sixty years ago and then died. Nothing's ever probated, and there's no way to legally get almost any of those lots to people who can secure and care for them.

There are a lot of vacant properties in Kensington - the aerial view on Google maps is a beautiful deep green - and the work involved in trying to navigate the broken city systems that deal with those properties, and to push policy reforms to unbreak those systems, it's endless (my boyfriend can tell you he has to fight to get me to stop thinking about lots so I can fall asleep). All that's another news story.

This post is about Philadelphia Weekly's new list of the 'top ten' drug corners in Philadelphia. The last list, in 2007, had corners that were scattered around the city. 2011's are all compounded in the same tiny wasted stretch of Kensington where you find all those lots I dream about: "from Lehigh to the south to Westmoreland, roughly a half-mile stretch, and from Kensington Avenue to N. Fifth Street, a distance just less than a mile." It's a blunt tool, picking ten drug corners based mostly on arrest frequency, but it captures something bigger and truer: I know all these blocks, and the 10 corners featured are surrounded by 10 and 10 and 10 more of the same. "No area of the city came close to Kensington and Fairhill in terms of the density and brazenness of the drug selling."

This is Hamsterdam.

But what does it mean to have a de facto Hamsterdam in Kensington when people, families, senior citizens, all still live there?

Digging Deeper: The role of property tax in urban redevelopment

Today's installment in Patrick Kerkstra's Plan Philly/Inquirer series on property tax delinquency digs deeper into the relationship between property tax delinquency and blight, and how a strategically-designed collection system could support redevelopment.

It's well worth reading and discussing, as it encapsulates the hard policy decisions that need to be considered in order to even begin changing the status quo. These should be central as the Ross and Taylor bills are amended and improved in Harrisburg, and our city government considers how to weigh in to that process as well as act locally on near-term legislative and administrative reforms.

* What pace of tax or lien foreclosures can the market absorb before property values become depressed and supply outpaces demand?
* How can we make sure the new owners are more responsible than the old ones?
* Does the City want to own all this land in advance of development interest, and take on responsibility for maintenance and liability?
* What will it take politically to move from five entrenched public or quasi-public agencies which own land, to a new system with centralized inventory and processes?
* How can we improve protections for low-income occupants, so we can keep people in their homes and avoid new costs from increased displacement and homelessness?

All that uncollected property tax: Looking for a vision of reform behind the dollar signs

$472 million in uncollected property tax looks to be this year's $1.5 billion - the estimated unpaid court fees and forfeited bail that is now being collected by aggressive private firms following the newspapers' revelations of long mismanagement at the disbanded Clerk of Quarter Sessions. Time will tell if the property tax numbers in a report by PlanPhilly.com (in partnership with the Inquirer) draw the same sustained public attention, and spur creaky systems to change.

But a similar, fundamental, error already looms. In a city with a persistent 25% poverty rate, and glaring hunger numbers (1 in 2 people in Philadelphia's First Congressional District, as reported last week), much of that debt is simply uncollectible. It's not hiding under beds and in nightstands. A significant amount of tax and water debt can and will never be collected. We are stuck, rock and hard place, Scylla and Charybdis: leaving all that debt in place burdens title, increasing abandonment and blight, and complicates efforts to get people to pay their current and future tax debt.

It's easy to sell papers and get column inches with the accusation that government inaction and unfairness is costing those of us who followed the rules and paid taxes and bills on time, particularly against the backdrop of budget crises that are starting to look apocalyptic for states and cities. And it's not untrue. But it's mostly beside the point.

Look at the options presented, essentially two. One: quick and mass foreclosure. Two: unload the problem by selling off the debt itself to private third parties, who should have market incentives to foreclose and no meddling City Council members to interfere. Both are misguided for reasons amply suggested by the study's own data.

How we run our schools: the budget fight within the budget fight

Yesterday School District officials presented their budget request to City Council - an additional $70-100 million above the regular allocation - to fill an over $600m projected shortfall. The hook is that the District has threatened to otherwise end a slate of programs that are more integral than accessory: full day kindergarten, schools that serve the most vulnerable kids, tokens that get students to and from school. Today Council will hear public comment, and has a long list of people already signed up to testify.

So despite reports that the mayor has already committed to find the money, there is no straight line to how this would get done. There seems to be deep public and political support for fully funding public education in the city, but no consensus yet as to the least painful way to raise the money.

And there are also sharp questions about the District's own spending priorities, powerfully outlined by Parents United (and posted by Helen, below). These questions only get fueled by reporting like today's Inquirer tally of the cost of the District's internal investigation into whistleblowing over its contracting practices. The District should respond, and hopefully this budget process can become a tool to compel a real two-way conversation.

While working for Councilwoman Sanchez, I had the opportunity to visit Fairhill Community School, one of the drop-out prevention programs that is threatened. Most often when kids are corralled onto a panel to talk to a bunch of politicians, no one says anything particularly interesting. But there, every student who spoke told an arresting story - of how they came to the school, and how the respect and engagement they felt there was unlike anything they had experienced before. Each kid was 1000% clear that they would have never made it through their regular high school, or had already dropped out, because the lack of safety and size at places like Fels made it impossible for them to get the support they needed to deal with school on top of pretty harrowing life circumstances. And many, many of these students were girls raising children. If the District did go through with ending alternative schools like Fairhill, aimed at drop-out prevention and returning kids to school, there is no substitute. These kids will not graduate. We can't seriously allow them to be treated as a bargaining chip in the budget, and at the very least any additional funds should be securely targeted for the threatened programs.

But there will surely be additional cuts (language support is proposed to be halved), given the shortfall. We have to look beyond the obvious crises and consider the full budget picture, and insist on a real role for the mayor, Council, and public in deciding priorities and how and where cuts are made.

A victory for the underestimated

Yesterday in a lot of areas of Philadelphia, what I have no better or less cliched term for than the good old boys club was out in force. In areas where demographic change has left majorities and significant minorities without real representation, even historic enmities were set aside in the interest of preserving power in the hands of those who have long held it. In some races this was successful.

But I want to explicitly recognize the races where it wasn't.

Maria Quinones Sanchez, my boss, won reelection by over 20 percent without the support of most ward leaders or the city's democratic party machine. This is the same party that tells aspiring candidates to wait for open seats, because the party always supports its incumbents. Except in this case, when the incumbent is Puerto Rican and a woman and actually representing historically under- and unrepresented communities, and the challenger is deeply connected to that old boys club.

That framing may sound like oversimplification, and it's true that the election in the Seventh District was not only about race and gender and culture and class. But race and gender and culture and class mattered - they made Councilwoman Sanchez an outsider even as an incumbent. Speaking very personally, to me the deeper truth this uncovers is that you (women, disempowered minorities, progressives, poor people) will not win by playing their game. You will think you are one of the boys, and then when it actually matters - when power is challenged, when they can get away with it - ranks will close.

Maria won, handily, because she provides real representation to communities throughout her district and they cared enough to come out and vote for her. It's a direct rebuke of all of the worst of machine politics, and I hope people come to see it as an inspiration and a model.

I want to also say something about another dramatic victory by another woman who was shamefully underestimated, Blondell Reynolds Brown. Assessments of Councilwoman Reyolds Brown's chances painted her as weak, her seat at risk. Men I often hear talking - men who are involved with or follow local politics, and it's always men - almost uniformly imply that this is because she is somehow not a strong legislator, not 'effective'.

This is based on nothing. It's based on a tired, tired trope where men are allowed to judge women on their appearance as much as their performance and ideas and where an attractive women will always have her accomplishments undercut by insinuations that she did not get where she is on her own merits. And it's true that a lot of people in local politics at all levels did not in fact get there on their own merits. But it matters that the label gets stuck only sometimes, only to certain people, and looking at how and why involves facing how invidious sexism can be. I predict every man who talks to me about this post denies that sexism has anything to do with it. First take a couple minutes and seriously think about some of Councilwoman Reynold Brown's work supporting elderly people and children, on health and safety and the environment, and think hard about why you are comfortable assessing her priorities and work below every other male incumbent at-large Council member.

Yesterday she beat every single one of those at-large incumbents and candidates to come in first.

Congratulations Blondell and Maria. Let's keep proving people wrong and redefining what political power means in this city.

We Lay Waste Our Powers: what Corbett's destruction of Temple University will cost all of us

Though I know that we all stand together or we all fall separately and all that, there is always the moment of relief reading or listening to a budget address when you realize this or that was spared. There were those moments in Governor Corbett's address yesterday. We are not yet New Jersey. Free legal services will survive for now, as will important welfare programs. Prisons may not expand forever.

But the glaring casualty (apart from the cuts to the Department of Community and Economic Development - including the end of the grab bag that is 'walking around money', one double edged blade for the Governor) is education. In addition to sharp reduction in public school budgets likely designed to create a back-door Wisconsin situation by pressuring teachers' unions to the breaking point, there are 50% cuts to Temple and the other public and publicly-affiliated universities. Under the Governor's proposed budget, if Temple does not die, it will survive as something altogether different and worse.

This is not hyperbole. Starting with a 50% cut, even a compromise amount could be massive. As Temple's funding has been progressively reduced in past years, its student composition has likewise shifted. It's a complicated set of reactions, but there are clear trends: tuition is still low, but it's higher. Test scores and GPAs of admitted students are up. Students are more suburban, whiter, more privileged. Temple is a solid choice for kids with choices, not necessarily the one ladder out of a hard neighborhood with bad schools and a family where no one has advanced degrees or degrees at all. But for some kids, Temple is still that ladder and those kids are important. They are from Philadelphia. And Temple might also employ their parents, family members, neighbors with solid union jobs.

I've written before here about how I graduated from Temple before I graduated from Penn Law. Now I work in City Council, for Maria Quinones Sanchez, helping to represent neighborhoods filled with kids I desperately want to see have the chance to attend Temple and have access to the same amazing social and intellectual community I got to join.

There is no way they'll have that chance under the Governor's budget. Temple's president said in a video posted quickly yesterday afternoon that she would have to exercise all possible measures: layoffs, program closures, tuition hikes. Think though any one of those and see what a mess we are in. Start with tuition hikes: unless Temple ends anything close to normal financial aid practices, for every dollar you increase tuition, there will be students who need that much more aid. So you end up having to raise fees more sharply for those who can pay to make up for those who can't. At some point those who can pay stop looking at Temple as a surprisingly good deal with solid academics, and start looking somewhere more flashy and with a campus in a more idyllic setting than North Philadelphia. Enrollment drops. Even more jobs have to be cut, from one of the largest and most significant employers and economic engines in the whole city. "Inessential" programs and disciplines get cut or closed and the very scope of academic inquiry possible at Temple has fundamentally changed and contracted. Whatever that possible future Temple ends up looking like, it will be worse. Less competitive, less accessible, less of an economic and development force.

Corbett quoted Faulkner and Wordsworth in his address yesterday. Wordsworth was invoked at length - "'Getting and spending / We lay waste our powers.' Note the subtlety there. It's not that we use up our powers. We lay them waste. We lose them outright. Getting and spending we lose track of our real purpose" - minutes after he justified not taxing natural gas extraction at Marcellus Shale with these words:

These resources, by the way, belong to the people who own the mineral rights. Those people are getting their fair share by working out their own leases with the companies doing the drilling. That's how it should be. That's the American way. What Pennsylvanians will gain is the jobs, the spinoffs, and if we don't scare off these industries with new taxes, the follow-up that comes along. You see underneath the Marcellus Shale is another bonanza. It's called the Utica Shale. And where Marcellus promises 50 years of energy the Utica promises riches going into the next century. Let's make Pennsylvania the hub of this boom. Just as the oil companies decided to headquarter in one of a dozen states with oil. Let's make Pennsylvania the Texas of the natural gas boom. I'm determined that Pennsylvania not lose this moment. We have the chance to get it right the first time, the chance to grow our way out of hard days.

That vision is not Pennsylvania as Texas. It is Pennsylvania as 19th century England. It's the nightmare of industry that acts only for itself. Who can still fetishize a made-up golden age of unbridled souls, free to bargain with unregulated industry? When has that worked out for the unbridled souls? Playing fields aren't level, information is not symmetrical, sometimes the only job available could kill you and wants you to work overtime with no additional pay, and if you can't organize for better conditions or leave what good is any theoretical free agency you might have? Likewise, how can you stand before the people of your state in March of 2011 and tell them to trust that by letting industry help itself, we will be helping all of us? What poem can he quote us to justify the recent subprime lending crisis and this ongoing recession?

I read Wordsworth as a student at Temple. I read "The World Is Too Much With Us," and "Tintern Abbey." I thought about the industrial era reacted to by those poems, and the post-industrial forces that were shaping the neighborhoods right around and behind Temple's campus. I took classes at in-state tuition rates with brilliant professors like Steve Newman, who has already written incandescently about the Governor's proposed cuts. I went to Rome for the price of that same tuition. I got work study money that helped me live, paid out of special state funds dedicated to creating a supportive bridge to college for local students who otherwise would not have gotten in and who often flourished once there. I mentored those students, I tutored them, I hung out with them, and we brought each other closer to the kind of academic inquiry Temple fosters: we rigorously engaged with texts and ideas, and embedded all that work in the reality of our and other's lives and communities. Because literature is not just there to turn into political rhetoric, nor is history, economics or philosophy. They are not there to excuse taking money from Temple and Philadelphia to give it to the people who happen to have bought some mineral rights, and to wrap that theft in tones of authority. Temple would have taught the Governor to read and use all the sources at play in his speech with a sharper sense of care and responsibility. I hope he comes, immerses himself there even briefly, and tests his claims against what he sees.

The great preserver?

Ben Waxman has a column up turning on its head the now-received wisdom that the mayor should be judged by what he hasn't done. There's been a chorus for a while arguing that the mayor has missed opportunities -- for deeper ethics reform (Catherine Lucey), or for taking the recessionary opportunity to minimize government for the long term (Larry Platt).

But Ben's point is much of what the mayor hasn't done is to the great benefit of the city: he hasn't slashed jobs, and largely preserved services. In the context of what has been happening in other major cities, that's no small feat.

PS congrats, Ben for the byline!

'The war on dissent': A town hall on increased surveillance and harassment of activists

The ACLU is in the news today for a massive constitutional suit they've just filed along with two of my teachers - Seth Kreimer and David Rudovsky - and Rudovsky's partner Paul Messing. They target the city's use of stop and frisk, which has been ramped up quietly since the heated public debate during the last mayoral race. The suit claims that as practiced by the Philadelphia police, stop and frisk is unconstitutional in targeting black and Hispanic men for no valid legal ground and in not disciplining and correcting clear patterns of police misuse. It will be really interesting to see what comes out of any discovery. The complaint, pretty fascinating, is here.

But I wanted to post an upcoming ACLU event on a topic that has had much less media attention, continued and increased targeting of activists for surveillance and harassment since George Bush left office. This is a great group of people covering a lot of important ground. Definitely worth getting out for.

THE WAR ON DISSENT: A TOWN HALL

FBI raids on homes of anti-war activists... State office of homeland security tracking of activists… Police harassment and arrest of G-20 protestors...

Surveillance and harassment of activists are on the rise. Express your support of free speech and learn more about current threats to the right to dissent,
including:

*The latest on the state anti-terrorism bulletins tracking activists
*The dangers of fusion centers, mechanisms created to share federal, state and local intelligence
*The use of the PATRIOT Act’s “material support” statute to go after activists
*The risks of privatizing intelligence gathering

Moderated by activist and attorney Michael Coard and featuring:

Michael German, former FBI agent and ACLU Policy Counsel
Paul Hetznecker, criminal defense attorney/civil rights attorney
Mary Catherine Roper, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania
Jess Sundin, one of the targets of the recent FBI raids on activists in the Midwest

When: Wednesday, November 10, 6:30 p.m.

Where: Friends Center, 1501 Cherry St., Philadelphia, PA 19102

Free & open to the public.

For more information: aclupa@aclupa.org or 215-592-1513 x122

Unbreaking the bail system

Given today's article about the private bail industry angling to move their business into Philadelphia, I am bumping back up my post from January of this year. Please, please listen to the NPR series linked at the bottom of the post, if you haven't already. And thanks to the decision-makers - the courts, DA, and Public Defenders - who are pushing back on this.

While I have concerns with the recent Inquirer series on the city's criminal court system, there are certainly problems with that system, and the series certainly drew attention.

Since it went to press, state Supreme Court justice Ron Castille finally took the step many of us were waiting for: he is stripping all significant responsibilities from the Clerk of Quarter Sessions and handing them over to the courts. The elected position and accompanying salaries will still exist for now, but that office will functionally no longer be administering the bail system.

Also, Arlen Specter convened Senate subcommittee hearings to examine many of the issues raised by the Inquirer. Seth Williams, our new DA, testified at those hearings. Seth also focused on problems with the bail system. He emphasized need for not harsh punishment, but sure punishment. This is key. The issue is not the dramatic $1 billion plus figure the newspapers have trumpeted, since much of that money is surely uncollectible. It's the need for more resources to be devoted to bail enforcement. This will take detectives, though Specter also noted that the city could start by simply registering fugitives in an existing national database.

(However, as it risks continuing the blood from a stone mistake, I hope Seth's comment about the possibility of going after bail scofflaws' family members stays on the drawing board.)

Joe Sestak, running against Specter in the upcoming primary, also put forward a plan to help cities deal with the long-term fugitive problem:

Also in response to the newspaper's work, U.S. Rep Joe Sestak (D., Pa.), running against Specter in the Democratic primary, called for a nationwide study on how to reform bail. He said that under his proposal, Philadelphia could be selected as a place to test the best new approaches.

Specter said he would urge his colleagues in the Senate to revive a proposal to channel federal money to cities to help stem the tide of fugitives.

The hearings also raised the private versus public bail question, a subtext to a lot of the newspaper coverage. Many are agitating to open the doors to private bail providers again, though Philadelphia abandoned that practice in the face of abusive practices. Specter has invited research into the private bail option, though initially seemed opposed to it.

However, as we've seen, any attempts to increase the stringency of the bail system based on increasing dollar amounts of bail runs the risk of just swelling the city prison population with poor, pre-trial detainees who simply have no way to get even a small amount of money together. Any reform of the bail system should focus not on raw dollar amounts, but on means tests and refining how we evaluate risk of flight, coupled with stricter oversight and enforcement. This must include supervised alternatives to incarceration for those who can't translate their commitment to show up for court into a monetary payment.

Yesterday NPR's 'All Things Considered' opened a chilling three-part series on the half million Americans sitting in jail--not because they've been convicted of any crime--but because they can't afford bail, sometimes as little as $50 (the subject of the story, when told, 'that's not a lot of money,' says, 'it is to me. To me it's like a million dollars.'). Everyone concerned with plans for Philadelphia's system should listen.

the ADA twenty years on: still fighting for home care

Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The ADA is another product of 1960s and 70s movement building (an oral history and archive is fittingly hosted by UC Berkeley).  There's too much history to telescope into a short post, but the dimensions of what the movement was fighting against are shown in a few examples.  Through much of the 20th century it was legal for states to forceably sterilize disabled people.  Lack of curb cuts made basic movement impossible.  Policies pushed the vast majority of disabled people into institutions like nursing homes and made it impossible for them to use public benefits to live even semi-independently.

Whether someone is temporarily or permanently disabled, physically or developmentally, the protections created by the ADA are crucial to full participation in society. This became starkly clear to me after my father's massive stroke in October. I spent time with him at Magee Rehab Hospital, and being in a space focused on allowing people to be recognized as full, functional people, regardless how severely their bodies are compromised, was completely radical and sadly uncommon.

This work - and the struggle that gave rise to the ADA - continues.  We are waiting to appeal my father's initial Medicaid denial (we had to turn to Medicaid since even expensive private insurance categorically excludes any long term care).   Once it is approved, we'll need what are called 'waiver programs', which fund home and community-based care, to get him out of the nursing home and actually home.  Without these types of waiver programs, my father and others could be stuck indefinitely in institutional care, like nursing homes, where residents have little control over their lives.

And the situation is even starker for those with less resources than my family.  States have cut funding for home care programs to try to make up budget shortfalls, despite these programs costing much less than nursing homes.  Proposed legislation - the Community Choice Act - would help mandate that states provide a choice to live at home with support for anyone who qualifies for nursing home benefits, but doesn't yet have the votes to pass.  This one local news story, about a man moving into his own apartment for the first time, shows how huge it is to have the chance to live independently.  If you want to be part of making this kind of systemic and individual change over the next twenty years, please think about donating to the Disability Rights Network of PA.

Kittens need YOU!

There is indication that the city shelter system is completely overwhelmed by this year's wave of kittens. Thousands will be killed if more folks don't adopt or foster right now.

If you have ever been up to the main shelter on Erie Ave, well, there is a dizzying number of animals. Every cat and kitten you could ever want or imagine.

So all adoptions from PSPCA for the next two weeks will be $1, instead of the normal fee of $75. Your new cat will have a veterinary check-up, spay or neuter, and a collar and tags.

And temporary fostering through "PAWS" - fostering is caring for litters of kittens until they grow to about 3 pounds each - gets kittens out of the shelter and out from under the imminent risk of death. The growth of fostering locally has been the main reason why fewer animals have had to be killed in recent years.

Look at what you have been missing...

For low cost spay/neuter: "Call the PSPCA or check out www.spayneuterphilly.com, a new outreach program to help locals find low-cost spay and neuter services, or call the new Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) new Spay/Neuter and Wellness Clinic at 215-298-9680."

For fostering: "Contact PAWS Adoption Center at 215-238-9901 for more details."

For $1 adoptions: "The Cat and Kitten Super Adopt-a-thon begins Friday, June 25 and continues through Sunday, July 11. All cats and kittens will be available for $1. Adopters must fill out adoption applications, meet with counselors for application review and approval, show proof of identification and bring a copy of their lease or their landlord’s phone number if they rent so the shelter can verify if pets are allowed."

Philadelphia adoption locations and hours:
The Pennsylvania SPCA Headquarters
350 E. Erie Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19134
Monday through Friday: 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Best news

It is my birthday, and it sounds like the city is going to end its policy of sharing access to its arrest database with ICE.

After a packed, positive community forum at a South Philadelphia church - no small thing given a little, uh, Mexico-Argentina world cup soccer game happening at the same time - Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety, announced that it is expected the city will opt not the renew the ICE contract in the coming week.

This is the product of powerful community action, recognized by strong leadership with the mayor, police, and DA. I am so proud and happy.

Living with fear of the people you need to protect you: Immigrant communities respond to local collaboration with ICE

Our Stories Give Us Power: Guadalupe Hernandez from Center for Constitutional Rights on Vimeo.

We are still waiting on a decision whether the city will keep allowing ICE, the federal immigration enforcement agency, to access its arrest database, called PARS. (Dan wrote last week about how our DA, who got national exposure this weekend for his many other progressive ideas, may be the swing vote to change this destructive policy.)

A lot of the discussions about whether local law enforcement should assist with immigration enforcement work are pretty abstract. Some argue that once people are in the criminal justice system, they are fair game - even though being arrested doesn't mean you are guilty of any crime. And there are differing ideas and prejudices about what rights non-citizens have.

But all this is pretty academic. Immigration status is not binary ('legal,' 'illegal'). Some people are in the process of obtaining status, some families are mixed, sometimes names and arrest records get mixed or messed up.

In the real world, in Philadelphia's neighborhoods, different things become clear. In many situations, like fights and domestic incidents, people do get arrested but are never charged with a crime. Frequently even the victim or a witness can get pulled in, later released once the police work through language and other issues to figure out who the culprits really are. Victims - of theft, abuse - refuse to call police or make complaints when they think local law enforcement may be communicating with ICE.

I am hoping that the decision makers vote to end the contract to allow ICE to access the PARS database, and pull back from the broader 'Secure Communities' program. In order to effectively deal with crime, which is our local responsibility, we need to build the trust that these collaborations destroy.

The community groups Juntos, New Sanctuary Movement, and the Philadelphia Storytelling Project have created a series of testimonies showing the human consequences of these policy decisions.

And many of these groups have organized a community forum for this Sunday June 27, 2-4 pm at Annunciation B.V.M. Church at 10th and Dickinson in South Philadelphia, where people will come together to tell politicians and the city why to say no to PARS access and Secure Communities. Please come out and listen.

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