State Rep. Chris Rabb, D-200, was recently ranked the No. 1 state legislator by ACLU-Pennsylvania for his voting record on laws that could affect civil rights and liberties.
The announcement was made earlier this month that Rabb received a score of 96, out of a possible 100, on the ACLU-PA Legislative Scorecard, which measures legislators’ voting records according to standards they deem as enhancing or threatening to civil rights. Rabb was scored on bills he supported or did not support for the 2019-2020 legislative session.
“I was pleasantly surprised because I don’t make decisions to be No. 1. I make decisions based on my values and my commitment to serving my community and upholding the state and U.S. constitution. That’s the oath I took. It just so happens me doing my job aligns with what the ACLU considers noteworthy,” Rabb said.
Several bills that the representative supported center on the rights of returning citizens or the formerly incarcerated, including a House bill that ensures those with a criminal record “are not automatically excluded from earning an occupational license” just because of their past.
Another House bill requires that criminal charges be automatically sealed for individuals who have been pardoned, and “automatically expunged” for those who have been fully acquitted.
“I believe that our state has too many criminal offenses and that our sentencing is too harsh and is racialized to negatively impact Black folks in particular. We need to create more opportunities, not more barriers to a successful reintegration into society. Most people who are in prison are released and if we have all of these restrictions on them when they come back, are we going to be surprised when they have no viable options to support themselves and their families? There are too many bills that I have to vote on that are about creating new criminal offenses and these offenses radically impede the life and liberty of Black folks, Latinx folks and poor folks,” Rabb said.
“We’ve created over 1,500 criminal offenses in the past 50 years, but it doesn’t keep us safer, but it does expand the number of people taxpayers are responsible for paying to put them in cages. We have the largest population of people who will die in a box and who pays for that? We do, when we could be paying for ventilation of our public schools, higher (teacher) salaries, all of these are things that could be better spent that we’re using to lock up the largest population of lifers in this entire country. That’s shameful.”
Jondhi Harrell, executive director of the TCRC Community Healing Center, which assists the formerly incarcerated, said such legislative efforts are needed in the community.
“It’s extremely important, especially to the returning citizen community as we come home and restart our lives. It’s difficult enough to find employment, to reintegrate families, to move our education forward, to find housing and just to fit into society. Any time you have state legislators like Representative Rabb who is conscious of our struggles and trying to facilitate legislation that will assist, that’s a great benefit to us,” he said.
Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of ACLU of Pennsylvania, shared a similar view, saying that Rabb’s votes for certain bills protect civil rights.
“State legislators play a critical role in protecting the rights of all Pennsylvanians,” she said. “With the highest score in the General Assembly last session on the ACLU-PA Legislative Scorecard, Representative Rabb has shown true leadership in protecting and advancing civil liberties in the commonwealth. As we start a new legislative session, we hope more legislators will work alongside us, especially when it comes to reforming our criminal legal system.”
Rabb also supported bills requiring more oversight in policing, including House Bill 1841, which mandates background reporting for law enforcement job applicants and an electronic database accessible for screening across law enforcement agencies. House Bill 1910 provides for racial, ethnic and economic diversity training, implicit bias training and yearly training on the “appropriate use of force,” among other areas.
Rabb said he received some voter pushback for how he voted on other legislation, including Marsy’s Law, a bill that provides for a victim’s “bill of rights,” but, according to Rabb, it conflicted with defendants’ rights. That bill was deemed unconstitutional in a split decision by the Commonwealth Court. An appeal has been filed to the Supreme Court for a final decision on the amendment’s constitutionality.
Rabb also voted “no” on a bill that “would require five-year mandatory minimum sentences for those who possess a firearm or a replica of a firearm while committing a crime of violence.”
Even with the city’s rampant gun violence, he said such measures are not the answer to curbing violent crime.
“Mandatory minimums don’t work. In fact, it’s so conclusive that they don’t work that now the majority of conservative Republicans, outside of Pennsylvania, unfortunately, and on the national level realize that this is not good policy. Secondly, they are very expensive, and taxpayers pay for it. If we don’t have a fair tax system, that means poor people pay more than their fair share to lock up their neighbors at a high rate and make them even less able to participate in society when they finally do come home. Also, there’s no guarantee that there’s any rehabilitation for those folks that have these mandatory minimum sentences,” Rabb said.
“The (last) reason is the carceral system punishes Black people most and if the person isn’t charged at all, then you’re not going to have a mandatory minimum. But if you overcharge Black people, which we do, then they’re going to serve more time than they should,” he said. “If they worked, if they were done fairly, irrespective of race or class, maybe then I’d have a different opinion, but that’s not the case and it’s never been the case. Mandatory minimums (are) a racialized weapon.”