One positive, one negative: Two changes in the Philly court system

April 27, 2010

The Inquirer  has two articles on changes in the Philadelphia criminal justice system that will certainly affect our clients:

1) Philly to start charging small drug charges as summary offenses rather than misdemeanors (Philly police in opposition)

2) New rules in Municipal Court will make preliminary hearings nothing more than cursory recitation of the allegations by the DA

The first change deals with how the Philadelphia DA will charge minor drug crimes.  Rather than charge things like possession of small amounts of marijuana as a misdemeanor (which could carry jail time and is regarded as a low-end serious criminal offense), the DA will charge these crimes as summary offenses.  A summary offense is the lowest level crime in Pennsylvania and is more akin to a traffic ticket than to a criminal offense.  In fact, there is no jail time possible for a summary.  As well, employers in Pennsylvania are not allowed to consider summary offenses when they make employment decisions.    This means that an arrest for possession should not carry the same deleterious effects going forward as it has had in the past. Finally, as long as you have a clean record for the past five years, you can have a summary offense expunged, which means that people who are caught for minor drug offenses won’t be weighted down by a record for the rest of their lives.

The second change is a bit more out of our realm as CLS doesn’t do criminal work.  What we can say is that increasing the number of cases that get past the preliminary hearing stage and to the trial stage will undoubtedly increase the number of convictions and guilty pleas, and along with this, will increase the number of Philadelphians with criminal records subjected to the terrible and life-altering collateral consequences that a record carries.

CLS Co-Counsels Law Suit Against Census Bureau

April 27, 2010

On 4/13/2010, CLS joined the law firm of Outen & Golden and 6 other public interest legal organizations in filing a class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Commerce.  (complaint).  The essence of the suit, which has gotten a lot of press coverage, is that the hiring practices of the Census Bureau are discriminatory.

The claim is made under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment (based on race, gender, etc…).  Rather than claiming that the Census Bureau is outright discriminating against applicants based on their race, the suit claims that the Census Bureau’s hiring practices have a disparate impact on non-whites. Read the rest of this entry »

Homelessness Prevention Money Is Not Reaching Those Who Need It Most

April 26, 2010

The City of Philadelphia Office of Supportive Housing (OSH) is receiving a little over $20 million  in stimulus funding over 3 years, for homelessness prevention and re-housing. The purpose of this program is to assist households that are currently homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Top Obama administration officials have touted the program as both crucial and groundbreaking.  Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan has called it “the single most important thing the federal government has ever done on family homelessness.  It’s a transformative tool.”

Yet, as with many stimulus-funded programs intended to pull hard-hit households back from the brink (e.g., foreclosure prevention), the program is failing to reach many of those most in need of help.  As this New York Times article points out , HUD has given potentially conflicting guidelines to  the social service agencies awarding these grants:

  1. to award them to families who would be truly homeless without assistance; and
  2. to award them only to households that can demonstrate that they will be able to quickly regain their financial footing after receiving the funds.

As Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, points out in the Times article:

Some communities have read that to mean we should only give it to people who have a job. Those are not the people who are likely to become homeless. My fear is that we’re going to spend the money and we’re still going to have these enormous increases in homelessness. We won’t have reached the people who most need it.

The structure of the program compounds the problem further: it directs participating social service agencies to front the monies and apply for reimbursement on the back-end, thus making these agencies (perhaps understandably) hesitant to award funds to households at risk of ending up in a shelter, and spurring them to design their programs incredibly narrowly.

Philadelphia’s program is no exception.  While the eligibility criteria articulated by OSH may not necessarily seem unduly restrictive at first glance:

Assistance is to be awarded to households:

  • at or below 50% of the median area income;
  • that would be homeless but for this assistance;
  • at risk for homelessness due to rental or utility delinquencies, but likely to maintain housing with assistance

It is this last, perhaps seemingly innocuous clause that on the ground keeps these funds from reaching so many of the Philadelphians most in need of aid. CLS advocates in various units (this blogger included) see clients on a daily basis for whom these funds could mean the difference between making next month’s rent payment and eviction for nonpayment. The homelessness prevention funds could be an incredible resource for these clients.

But instead, we are forced to counsel our clients:   OSH won’t award grants to households that can’t prove to a near certainty their ability to make the rent the month after that.  What does this mean in practical terms?  That our clients without a steady income are simply out of luck. Read the rest of this entry »

In sour economy, TANF cash assistance provides little help for Pennsylvania families

April 21, 2010

Earlier this week, a candidate for state-wide office complained to the (Pottsville, PA) Republican-Herald that “our welfare rolls have ballooned and ballooned.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is a common misconception that more and more people are receiving TANF cash assistance these days.  But the truth is far different.

In reality, fewer families are receiving TANF cash assistance in Pennsylvania than ever before.  And as the economy has soured and long-term unemployment has increased, the cash assistance rolls have only barely inched up.  (More people are, however, receiving food stamps or Medicaid.)

As the table below shows, the number of families receiving TANF cash assistance has dropped 16.5% statewide and 15.2% in Philadelphia over the past five years.  (Raw data available here.)



March 2010



March 2005



Why is this?

As the Department of Public Welfare increasingly emphasized welfare-to-work placements, many families were able to obtain employment.  However, CLS believes that many families that are eligible for TANF  are thwarted by the burdensome application process or burned out by the one-size-fits-all work-first policies that discourage recipients from seeking education and training to improve their employability.  Add to this that the TANF assistance grant has not been increased in over 20 years so a family of three, for example, can still receive only $403 per month in most counties.

A recent New York Times article examining the failure of TANF rolls to increase substantially in this economy cited a Congressional report finding “no clear association between the change in the number of families receiving cash assistance in a state and its unemployment rate.”

And that, CLS believes, is one of the most troubling aspects of TANF cash assistance.  A program that should serve as a safety-net program of last resort is failing its biggest test since welfare reform was enacted in 1996.

DPW issues policies to help domestic violence survivors

April 19, 2010

For years, advocates from Community Legal Services, Community Justice Project, Women’s Law Project, and others have worked with the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) to ensure that survivors of domestic violence who turn to TANF and GA cash assistance in a time of need receive support and protection.

In March, DPW published final regulations that reflect the recognition that cash assistance can play a vital role for individuals and families as a means to escape domestic violence, address safety issues, and become financially independent of abusive partners.  These regulations implement the federal Family Violence Option (FVO) that was part of the 1996 welfare reform law (also known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.)

Specifically, the regulations will:

  • Help to identify victims of domestic violence who may be in need of help;
  • Provide for referral of victims to counseling, shelter, or other appropriate services; and
  • Provide for waiver of certain TANF or GA program requirements when compliance with a requirement would place a victim at greater risk of domestic violence; make it more difficult for a victim to escape an abusive situation; or unfairly penalize a victim of domestic violence.

For more information on these final regulations, see the website of the Independent Regulatory Review Commission here.

Deadline to apply for LIHEAP is this Friday, April 16

April 13, 2010

This Friday, April 16, is the last day for Pennsylvanian families to apply for LIHEAP, the Commonwealth’sprogram to provide cash grants to low-income households to help pay for home heating emergencies such as a furnace failure or unexpected fuel shortages.  The program was set to expire earlier, but was extended until this Friday.

For more information on the program, see the Department of Public Welfare’s website or click here for a CLS flier with more information for Philadelphia residents.

New program called Way to Work Philadelphia! will create 10,000 new jobs for unemployed Philadelphians

April 7, 2010

This month, Philadelphia announced a new transitional work program for unemployed city residents called “Way to Work Philadelphia!”  This promising new program, funded by last year’s federal stimulus bill, came after months of advocacy by Community Legal Service and its client group, the Philadelphia Unemployment Project.

There are two components of the program.  The first will create 5,000 summer jobs for teens.  The second will create 5,000 jobs for low-income adults.  Most jobs will pay minimum wage of $7.25.

CLS urges the City and the State (which still must approve the proposal) to increase the hourly wage.  Because the wages will be paid entirely by federal money, increasing the wage would cost the city and state nothing.   As Mayor Nutter remarked last week in announcing the program, “We do not want to leave a single dollar on the table that could help Philadelphia’s economy grow.”

Way to Work Philadelphia! is currently slated to end on September 30, 2010, unless federal funding for the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund is renewed.  A bill to do just that has passed out of the House of Representatives and is now awaiting action in the U.S. Senate.

For more information on the program, including how you or someone you know can participate in one of these jobs, click here.