How Pittsburgh Activists Are Seizing a Rare Chance To Reshape Courts

Grassroots groups are backing a slate of judge candidates in the May 18 primary. If elected, they could curb bail, high sentences, and other drivers of mass incarceration.

Sam Mellins   |    April 29, 2021

The historic Allegheny County Courthouse & Jail in downtown Pittsburgh (Photo by Onasill ~ Bill Badzo/Flickr)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, a group of judge candidates known as the “Slate of Eight” are running on a promise to scale back the reach of the criminal legal system and promote alternatives to incarceration in the 1.2 million person county, which includes Pittsburgh.

Their campaigns for seats on the County’s Court of Common Pleas—the primary trial court for criminal, civil, and family cases—could bring overwhelming change not only to that court but also to lower courts whose procedural rules are set by Common Pleas judges.

“This is an opportunity to be transformative in terms of how our courts look, how our courts feel for the public, and the types of policy reforms that can be implemented,” said Tiffany Sizemore, a professor at Duquesne University School of Law and former public defender who is part of the Slate of Eight. 

The Slate of Eight moniker comes from grassroots racial justice organizations that teamed up to decide who to endorse out of a pool of more than 30 candidates. The groups are planning to mount major volunteer mobilizations on behalf of their chosen candidates in the run-up to the May 18 Democratic primary. 

Nicola Henry-Taylor, Lisa Middleman, Mik Pappas, Zeke Rediker, Giuseppe Rosselli, Chelsa Wagner, and Wrenna Watson round out the slate; most are criminal defense lawyers or former public defenders. Organizers supporting the slate say they chose these candidates because of their commitment to reforms like reducing the use of cash bail, curtailing long sentences, diverting drug cases, and limiting the involvement of minors with the criminal legal system.

“The slate candidates all understand how mass incarceration is one of the leading issues in this country, that the issue of mass incarceration is a national embarrassment,” Wasi Mohamed, a founding organizer with UNITE, one of the organizations that endorsed the slate, told The Appeal: Political Report. 

“Historically judges have used the discretionary power of the Court of Common Pleas to breed this system of mass incarceration. Now we have people who are actually advocates against it wanting to take these seats,” Mohamed said. 

One of the factors motivating activists to mobilize around the Common Pleas races this year was the number of seats open—nine out of 34. Only three seats were open in the last two elections combined, and with judges serving 10-year terms, such an opening isn’t likely to arise again soon.

And reshaping the bench could have a trickle-down effect. Under Pennsylvania law, Common Pleas judges have the power to set countywide rules for the administration of the county’s court system.

Taking over nearly a quarter of the bench would enable the slate to “bring a cohesive force to making the changes that we need to make on a policy level,” said Middleman, a public defender. 

The sitting judges on the Court of Common Pleas may not be as reform-minded as the Slate of Eight, but Pappas said he’s confident they’d be able to work together to produce changes. “We all have a vested interest in improving the justice system in Allegheny County,” Pappas said. “I don’t doubt that there would be skepticism and perhaps even resistance, but I also know that they know there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Middleman said she hopes to scale back Allegheny County’s onerous system of court fees, which can keep people stuck in the legal system for years. That issue has also been a focus of Wagner, who is the current county controller. The slate could also significantly drive down the number of people in jail by changing cash bail policies, something that Sizemore and Pappas say they would advocate for.

Pappas has already tackled this issue as an Allegheny County magisterial judge, a position in which he oversees the initial stages of a criminal proceeding. An ACLU of Pennsylvania report analyzed 239 cases he oversaw in 2018 and 2019, finding that he set cash bail in just six of those cases. Pappas told the Political Report he would bring a similar approach to bail decisions on the Court of Common Pleas.

“People have a fundamental right to pretrial release just like they have a right to the assistance of counsel in their case, or to be presumed innocent,” he said.

Pappas said he would advocate for rules that allow pretrial services to replace burdensome cash bail with nominal payments or none at all. Instead of release being based upon an accused person’s ability to pay, that person could be referred to mental health and addiction treatment providers and other services to ensure they show up on their court date.

Drug prosecution could also be scaled back under the Slate of Eight. Middleman says one of her priorities is increasing options for people to receive treatment or services rather than incarceration. Especially for first-time defendants, she said, “Instead of involving them in the system, you could create a diversion program where the person would not have to plead guilty to get treatment and help that they needed.” 

Sizemore sees a similar need to change how the court deals with youth cases. Her work in the last decade has focused on juvenile justice; if she’s elected, she wants to end the prosecution of minors as adults in her courtroom. Pennsylvania law gives judges broad discretion on this issue for most felony cases.

“I don’t think that children should be tried as adults, ever,” Sizemore said. “What we know is that both the science and the United States Supreme Court have told us repeatedly that children are different. They tend to be less morally culpable; they tend to have greater prospects for reform.”

In her practice, Sizemore has fought the school-to-prison pipeline by working to keep children from being placed on probation due to infractions at school, a decision made by family court Common Pleas judges. “One way that courts frequently criminalize adolescents is by reflexively making this finding that, ‘Well, if you’re here and you took a dime bag of weed to school, you must need to be on probation,’” Sizemore said. 

Sizemore said she would dismiss the charges of minors who end up in court for infractions like this. “Most children actually don’t need probation or supervision,” she said.

Across the country, advocates for criminal justice reform have increasingly homed in on judicial elections as fertile ground for change. Last year, activists in New Orleans and Las Vegas backed judge candidates whose experience and priorities mirror the Slate of Eight. But in Allegheny County, the grassroots-style campaigns of the slate candidates are a departure from the norm.

“The traditional path has been to schmooze the Democratic committee members, and get the labor council endorsement, and the FOP [Fraternal Order of Police], because that’s what judges are supposed to do,” Middleman said. “We have not chosen that traditional path, because those are not the organizations that have been vocal or helpful in making the progressive change that is necessary.” 

Instead, the candidates are relying on the organizations that endorsed the slate to mobilize volunteers.

Straight Ahead, one of the endorsers, grew out of the Abolitionist Law Center’s court watch program. Participants observed judges adopting racist and discriminatory attitudes toward defendants, said Robert Saleem Holbrook, the executive director of Straight Ahead. “We recognized that ‘OK, we have to do something about these terrible judges,’” he added.

Straight Ahead’s organizing is focusing heavily on outreach to those directly affected by incarceration, including people who are currently locked up. Although people in Pennsylvania prisons are not eligible to vote, Holbrook said Straight Ahead will be encouraging them to ask their family members to vote for the slate. 

“We are going to be flooding the prison with [information about] this slate, and telling them to send it home to their communities, because our communities are going to be impacted by who sits on these benches,” Holbrook said. “We’re going to mobilize the communities that we’ve been representing for years, but just in a defensive position,” against police and correctional abuse, he added.

These efforts have met with a positive response so far, Holbrook said. “I’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm, because they’re feeling empowered, like ‘Yeah, we are now going to matter. We are now on the offensive, entering spaces where we previously weren’t even aware that we could make an impact.’”

Last year, 1Hood Power, another organization that selected the slate’s candidates, was heavily involved in organizing during both the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and the fall general election. Members of the group are now campaigning on behalf of the Slate of Eight with the skills they gained from organizing marches and mobilizing voters for top-of-the-ballot Democrats. “We did some stuff around helping with [the Senate elections in] Georgia, and now we’re like, ‘OK, we can actually affect right here where we live in a big way,” said founder Jasiri X.

1Hood Power is planning a big digital push for the slate as the election approaches, including a series of videos explaining the offices that will be on the ballot, including Common Pleas judge.

Voters will also have a chance to elect magisterial district judges and weigh in on a ballot initiative that would ban solitary confinement in the county jail, and another that would abolish no-knock warrants.

Mohamed said UNITE’s mobilization for the Slate of Eight has been boosted by its previous wins, which include getting multiple state representatives and local officials elected. “Every race, we build capacity, we build membership, we build interest and excitement around these races. And every victory made our members and those in the community realize that we could actually change and impact local politics,” Mohamed said. 

As homicide counsel at the Public Defender’s office, Middleman can already feel the change. “I’m used to my cause not being one that’s generally accepted or supported,” she said. “So the last several years have been amazing and inspiring. People and groups are interested, and they are supportive, and they’re willing to work really, really hard to make change.”