ACLU Sues a Pennsylvania County for Detaining Probation Violators for Months With No Hearings

Pennsylvania’s county has been holding probation-violers for several months without hearings from the courts. This is according to the American Civil Liberties Union in a Tuesday class action lawsuit. Plaintiffs claim that it is an unlawful deprivation and violation of the Constitution.

Montgomery County just north Philadelphia has a policy of keeping people locked up for probation violations, and then waiting several weeks or months until they have a judicial hearing. This allows them to decide whether to return to prison. This practice, according to the ACLU’s suit against Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania deprived these individuals of their right to due process.

Supreme Court decision from 1973 Gagnon v. ScarpelloThis law provides that probation holders who are facing having their probation suspended or revoked can have a hearing before they lose it. The Court held that revoking probation does not constitute a new offense, but is merely a re-imposition or extension of an old sentence. However, it may cause a significant loss of liberty and the defendants should be afforded due process. Think about the consequences: An individual could be sent back to jail, possibly for many years. An accusationThey violated their probation.

Montgomery County has a system where defendants can be held in jail for up to six months while they await these hearings. The ACLU lawsuit states that this is basically a punishment where defendants are forced to plead guilty or not guilty in order to be released from prison. Without any sort of judicial assessment, probationers are sometimes being detained for long periods for minor crimes or even technical violations—like missed meetings with probation officers. These problems can be solved without putting these individuals back in prison.

Six people have been lost in the system. The ACLU represents them and seeks more to join their class action. Charles Gamber is one of the plaintiffs and has been held in prison since August without any hearing. He “allegedly failed to finish a voluntary program in psychiatric, didn’t take his prescribed medication, was unable to afford $100 in fines and did not complete a voluntary program in psychiatric.” Plaintiffs claim that

38th Judicial District uses a practice, policy or custom to detain almost everyone who is accused of violating parole or probation terms. It results in long-term and unconstitutional imprisonment. This irrefutable presumption that a person is being held in detention until a final revocation proceeding occurs, especially without any opportunity to challenge the confinement. It constitutes an independent violation of the Constitutions of Pennsylvania and the United States.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiff names prominent judges and administrators from the 38th Judicial District that serves Montgomery County. This lawsuit seeks to have the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania rule that the detention practices are in violation of both Pennsylvania’s Constitution and the U.S. Constitutions. The court also asks for an order preventing the county court of continuing to hold probation violators who do not appear at the time of hearings.

It Philadelphia InquirerIn 2019, they reported on how Montgomery County’s detention system jailed probation violators. The Montgomery County Board of Commission leaders support Pennsylvania Senate Bill 5 which would limit probation-related detention. One of the new changes is a limit of 30 days for detention due to technical and administrative violations. Further, the bill requires that before a probationer is imprisoned or sentenced to jail for failure to pay fines or restitution due to financial incapacity, or simply refuses to pay, the court first determine if he/she is financially capable to make the payment. If probationers keep clean records, they can be terminated early after 18 months.

S.B. 5, despite being co-sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans, is sitting in the Senate’s Judiciary Committee ever since March. It has not been recorded any votes. Maybe there will be a case against the class.