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Mass Liberation, Not Mass Incarceration

Pennsylvania is one of the world’s leaders in mass incarceration.  Our incarceration rate exceeds those of every country in the world, including our own.  When that rate includes our fellow Pennsylvanians on probation or parole, we have the extraordinary dishonor of being the second most incarcerated state in the United States, lagging only behind Georgia.

It is past time to make Pennsylvania a leader in mass liberation, not mass incarceration.  Pennsylvania has made progress in this fight, thanks to the dedication of organizers and social movements in our city, across the state, and across the country.  But there is still much to be done. To get it done, we need senators in Harrisburg who understand we cannot solve our social problems with prisons; who understand and address the pain and suffering our system of criminal punishment has inflicted; and who take seriously the harms victims suffer by developing true mechanisms of accountability.

Invest in Communities—Not Punishment, Prisons, and Jails

The prison boom of the eighties, nineties, and 2000s has been described as “one of the more concerted public works projects in recent history.”  Pennsylvania took part, opening 20 of our 25 state correctional institutions.  As of the end of 2018, these prisons incarcerated over 47,000 Pennsylvanians, more than a quarter of whom were convicted in Philadelphia, at a cost of over $2.6 billion dollars.  

Our addiction to incarceration is not limited to state prisons.  It extends to local jails—where tens of thousands are locked up before trial and nearly fifteen thousand after trial—and youth prisons, where we incarcerate nearly three thousand children.

These massive investments in incarceration have not made us safer.  Instead, they have perpetrated significant violence and harm, which has disproportionately targeted communities of color.  They have torn families apart, scarred children, and made it harder returning citizens to make ends meet.  

We must seize on the growing momentum for reform and make clear the urgency of transformative change.  

Nikil supports:

A moratorium on new prison construction. 2018  saw an unprecedented decline in Pennsylvania’s state prison population and the lowest crime rate in 50 years.  Nonetheless, the state opened a $400 million prison, the most expensive prison in Pennsylvania history, while children at underfunded Philadelphia public schools were exposed to lead, asbestos, and mold.

A statewide ban on private prisons. Pennsylvania incarcerates more youth in private prisons than any other state in the country.  We are also home to one private county jail, one private federal prison, and private facilities for people transitioning out of state prison.  It should be home to none.  We should follow the lead of California and Nevada and ban private prisons.  No one should profit off of putting people in cages.

Downgrading felonies and misdemeanors to spur decarceration and reunite families statewide.  As of the end of 2018, over four thousand people in state prison were serving years-long sentencesfor drug crimes.  Thousands more were serving years-long sentences for theft or stolen property, fraud, and forgery.  California’s Proposition 47 reduced penalties for similar offenses and made those changes retroactive.  As a result, thousands were freed from state prisons and county jails and thousands were not arrested, all without triggering an increase in violent crime.

Ending cash bail and pretrial punishment.  No one should be incarcerated because they’re poor, or because of the color of their skin.  But we do both in Pennsylvania.  We are one of the country’s leaders in pretrial incarceration, and we have put a price tag on people’s freedom while they await trial in over 1/3rd of all cases.  We must build on the successes of District Attorney Larry Krasner and abolish monetary bail statewide.  And we must eliminate pretrial detention—which is inconsistent with the principle that you are innocent until proven guilty—except when there is no other possible way to ensure public safety.  Pretrial punishment not only takes away our freedom, but it makes it more likely that someone will be convicted and sentenced more harshly.  It can even increase recidivism.   

Use state funds to encourage decarceration.  Nearly forty percent of those incarcerated in Pennsylvania are held in county and local jails at a tremendous cost to counties and to the communities caught in the system.  The General Assembly should play a role in encouraging counties to rely less on jails and more on education, public health, and housing.  This can be done through grant-based programs modeled on the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge, which has helped Philadelphia substantially reduce its jail population.  It can also be achieved through creating state grants for community bail funds, and conditioning state funding for local initiatives on ending cash bail and creating and implementing programs that divert people from the criminal system.

End Cruel Punishment for All

Pennsylvania bears many shameful badges in the realm of punishment.  We are the world’s leader life without parole—or, death by incarceration (“DBI”)—sentences.  We have the fifth largest death row in the country, behind California, Florida, Texas, and Alabama.  Despite the fact that mandatory minimum sentencing has been shown time and time again to disproportionately harm communities of color, our General Assembly has fought to bring them back in full force after our courts started striking them down.  We also are one of the nation’s leaders in correctional control, as a result of our hyper-reliance on probation and parole, one of the nation’s leaders in youth incarceration, and one of nation’s leaders in allowing the Trump administration to target our immigrant neighbors.  This cruelty does little to solve our collective challenges.  Instead, it often replicates and worsens them.  By promoting vengeance and brutality, our cruel systems of punishment erode our commitment to our common humanity.  By targeting our low-income communities, communities of color, and immigrant communities, they normalize and reproduce bigotry.

Nikil supports:

Abolishing death by incarceration.  DBI doesn’t keep us safe, and it disproportionately targets and harms communities of color.  Nearly 40% of those serving DBI sentences are black.  The median age for a DBI sentence is 25, meaning that many of those condemned to die in prison were convicted of crimes that occurred while their brains were still developing.  Many are condemned to die in prison for felony murder—a crime that holds people responsible for a killing even if they didn’t participate in it—and many of those—70%—serving DBI for felony murder are black.  Nikil supports ending DBI and capping maximum sentences at 20 years.


Reforming our broken system of pardons and commutations. Our broken system of pardons and commutations has recently been exploited to keep wrongfully convicted and truly rehabilitated people in prison.  Pardons and commutations should be decided by the executive, not a board rigged to prevent the release of those wrongfully convicted, rehabilitated, or terminally ill.  Senator Sharif Street’s proposed bill to allow those serving DBI a chance at parole after fifteen years is a strong start, but there is no reason to limit this opportunity to those serving DBI.

Abolishing the death penalty.  Since Pennsylvania’s death penalty was reinstated in 1976, six of those condemned to be killed by the state have been exonerated.  In this system, a death sentence is not a reflection of the severity of the crime.  It is a reflection of the poor quality of the attorney, the county where the trial occurs, and the race of the victim.  The odds of being sentenced to death decrease if the victim is black, but increase if the victim is white.  Pennsylvania must abolish this cruel, racist, and classist punishment.

Ensuring that work in prison and jails is not slavery.  Persons incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons get compensatedless than a dollar per hour for their work.  That is slavery, and it cannot be tolerated.  Labor on the inside of prison walls must not be treated worse than labor on the outside.

Abolishing solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is torture, cruelty that only compounds the brutality of our prisons.  It must be abolished.

Ensuring that our rights do not end with a criminal conviction. Pennsylvania’s criminal system punishes in ways that extend beyond jails, prisons, and mass supervision, by disenfranchising the disproportionately black, brown, and poor people it targets.  We must repeal rules preventing those with convictions from voting and serving on juries.   We must also support ongoing efforts in Harrisburg to limit the cruelty of our criminal system by removing employment barriers for returning citizens, fight to ensure that returning citizens have equal access to housing, and push to expand Clean Slate.


Ending Mass Supervision.  Over the past several years, many across this state have gotten a closer look than ever at our torturous system of probation and parole, which traps our most disadvantaged communities in a system that does everything but promote thriving.  It swells our prison populations, and makes us the state with the second highest rate of correctional control in the country.  We must begin to transform this system by forbidding incarceration for technical violations of probation and parole, requiring early termination after a year without a violation, and capping probation sentences at three years.       

Ending the Criminalization of Immigrants.Pennsylvania should be a state that welcomes immigrants, but it is one of the least safe places in the country for those who seek refuge and a better life in our country.  In 2017, ICE arrested more undocumented people in our state without criminal convictions than other ICE office in the countryRacial profiling against immigrants abounds.  And some officials in Philadelphia have quietly flouted its efforts to fight back against Trump’s racist deportation machine.  We must make Pennsylvania a refuge for immigrants, not a hotbed of fear, by instituting a statewide sanctuary law banning local cooperation with ICE and the Border Patrol.


Treating Kids as Kids. The practice of prosecuting and incarcerating youth as adults is racist, cruel, and ineffective, and it must be stopped.  But we must not stop there—we must transform our juvenile criminal system, which, too, is racist, cruel, and ineffective.  We can create mechanisms of accountability that don’t share the pernicious features of these systems, using Delaware’s juvenile civil citation program and Pennsylvania’s Youth Aid Panels as guides.     

Provide compensation and support for those wrongfully convicted.  The cruelty of our system doesn’t end for the wrongfully convicted when they’re exonerated.  Pennsylvania is one of the 15 states that does not provide monetary compensation to the wrongfully convicted, a clear signal that we have truly failed to reckon with the harm that we’ve caused, and that we’re content to continue to punish the wrongfully convicted even after they’ve been exonerated and freed.


Stop Criminalizing Poverty and Race

Our system of criminal punishment targets and harms our low-income communities and communities of color disproportionately.  And it traps them in cycles of debt and criminalization, effectively ensuring that once they are ensnared in this system, there is often no way out.  We must end the criminalization of race and poverty.

Nikil supports:

Ending cash bail.  Cash bail puts a price tag on our freedom, and ensures that those who can’t afford to pay for their freedom are not free, but enables those who can pay for their freedom to be free.  And it results in disproportionate rates of imprisonment for African-Americans.  The devastating consequences of this unjust system extend beyond the deprivation of freedom for those who can’t pay.  Indeed, pretrial detention makes a conviction and longer sentence more likely—helping make us one of the world’s leaders in incarceration.  And it can lead to losing your job, housing, access to medication, and even higher crime rates.  Cash bail is one of the ways the system traps low-income people in its grips, and it must be eliminated.

Ending costs, fees, and fines that trap people in the system and in poverty.  Criminal convictions, even misdemeanors and summary offenses, carry a barrage of costs and fees.  Those costs and fees are often unaffordable for those caught in the system. Even when people have to choose between eating and paying court costs, the cost of nonpayment is often steep.  Too many have lost their public benefits and have risked losing their homes.  Too many have gotten new convictions or wound up in jail, simply for being poor.  These costs, fees, and are a barrier to successful reentry, and they must be eliminated.  We must not fund our courts through this unjust system.

Legalizing marijuana and decriminalizing all other illegal substances.  For far too long, we have treated substance addiction and dependence as criminal, and it has done little more than criminalize poverty, race, and disease.  As the opioid crisis grips our state, we must learn from past mistakes and treat drug dependence as a public health issue, warranting treatment, not a prison cell. And it is past time to follow the lead of Portugal, which, through decriminalizing all illegal substances, has gotten a hold on its opioid crisis and has seen tremendous decreases in abusive drug use, overdose deaths, HIV infection rates, drug-related crime, and incarceration rates.  It is well past time we legalize marijuana.  But we must ensure that the financial benefits of legalization flow to the communities targeted by the devastating war on drugs, and we will do that by prioritizing communities of color in the licensing process and by devoting tax revenue from marijuana sales to homes, healthcare, family care, and education for all.  

Decriminalizing sex work. 

Criminalization decreases the likelihood that sex workers will alert police if harmed for fear of being arrested instead of protected. This compromised relationship between police and the sex work community makes it more difficult to find human traffickers, as sex workers cannot safely report what they may see to proper authorities. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the World Health Organization and other global organizations have come out in favor of decriminalization. Criminalizing sex work promotes violence and other serious harms, like HIV infection. We need to follow the lead of New Zealand and decriminalize sex work.  

Ending stop and frisk statewide. Philadelphia’s experience with stop and frisk policing has shown  is inseparable from racial discrimination; that police cannot help but flout the minimal restrictions placed on them; and that they will shift to other forms of racist policing—like aggressively targeting black drivers with stops and searches but finding less evidence of crime—when the pressure is on to cut down on stopping and frisking pedestrian. We must act decisively to curb these abuses by setting the bar higher for police to detain and search us. We can do that by requiring probable cause for any stop, as opposed to reasonable suspicion, the standard that paved the way for stop and frisk, to probable cause. This will promote, rather than harm, public safety, and it will make it more challenging for police to harass communities of color and low-income communities.    We must also restrict police authority to pull people over, by limiting the offenses that can justify a traffic stop, and by reclassifying more traffic offenses as secondary offenses—offenses that people cannot be ticketed for unless they are pulled over for another offense.     Finally, to further protect us all—including our immigrant brothers and sisters—from racial profiling, we need to discourage police from engaging in it, prosecutors from blessing it, and courts from approving it. We must push for a right to challenge any criminal case brought as a result of police action—like stop and frisk and car stops—that disproportionately targets black, brown, or low-income individuals.

Imposing stricter limits on the police use of force and deadly force. Brandon Tate BrownDavid JonesAntwon Rose.  These are just three of our many fellow  Pennsylvanians who have been shot to death by police.  They were young black men, a group disproportionately killed by police, and more likely to be fatally shot while unarmed. It is past time we rein in police power to use force.  We must support the bill proposed by Representatives Summer Lee and Ed Gainey that will place stricter limits on the police use of force, including limiting police use of deadly force to situations where it is reasonably believed necessary to protect the officer or another from imminent death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping, or sex by force or threat.

Funding public defenders.  Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that doesn’t provide a central oversight or funding for public defenders, advocates that help protect low-income communities and communities of color from our criminal punishment system.  This practically guarantees Pennsylvanians from low-income communities and communities of color will be more likely to be convicted of crimes, even those they did not commit, and serve longer sentences.

Invest in Effective Prevention and Accountability

As we scale back our cruel system of criminal punishment, we must put forward proven, effective strategies for reducing harm and violence, and we must implement policies that promote healing, rehabilitation, and restoration.

Nikil supports:

Investing in community-based violence prevention.  Make no mistake, gun violence has long been an epidemic in Philadelphia, and it is a serious problem throughout Pennsylvania.  We must invest in proven strategies to reduce gun violence that don’t rely on cruel punishments, like Cure Violence, a strategy that uses credible community members to identify and deescalate conflicts before they become lethal. Implementing Cure Violence in North Philadelphia led to a 30% reduction in shootings.  


Investing in eliminating poverty.  Poverty gives way to crime, and the criminal system operates to entrench poverty.  It is time to break that cycle, by fighting statewide to ensure that all, regardless of race, class, gender identity, or sexual orientation, are not living in poverty and despair, but have the basic goods necessary to thrive.  This is one of the many reasons why we must support a Homes Guarantee and a Green New Deal.

Invest in restorative practices.  We must develop a system of accountability for harm that promotes healing, not cruelty.  Pennsylvania currently uses Community Justice Panels for youth.  These panels, comprised of community volunteers, victims, and the accused, employ a restorative approach to crime, by defining the harm caused, addressing how it can be repaired, and providing support to the accused as they assume responsibility for repair.  We must expand these opportunities for youth, and we must create similar programs for adults. We must also create pilot programs that explore models of restorative justice that have been successful in making victims whole and preventing crime.  

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