By Brittany Hailer
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
Allegheny County Magisterial District Judge Mikhail Pappas who serves neighborhoods in the East End, described himself as an “at-risk kid” growing up in East Liberty. He dodged the phantoms of opioid addiction, but like many millennials, the generation most affected by the nation’s opioid epidemic, Pappas has lost swaths of friends and family to overdose.
“They became casualties to the war on drugs, the failed, racist, war on drugs” he said.
Pappas also carries with him the memory of violence in his own home, where he fled with his mother to safety. The shelters where they slept afterwards have been blotted out by time or trauma. But, when he asked his mother’s permission to share this part of their past, she reminded him that there was a period when they had nowhere else to go.
Navigating the nuances of a person’s circumstances and needs is key and it’s how he came to understand the justice system. It is through this lens which he presides. This lived experience, he said, makes him the judge he is. He wants to focus on rehabilitation.
And he hopes to do it at a higher level. Pappas is running in the May Primary for a seat on Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. Today marks his official announcement.
When he ran for district judge in 2017, openly calling for an end to cash bail, Pappas kept his past separate from his campaign, which he won by unseating a 24-year incumbent. But for this campaign, telling his life story and being transparent are front and center.
Pappas described his father as someone “who was a charming, educated person. Who himself was a victim of domestic abuse, and had an addiction to alcohol and suffered from depression.” His father served time in a Maryland state prison for the majority of Pappas’ childhood. His father’s addiction, pain and anger didn’t erupt in a vacuum, but Pappas and his mother were in real danger and needed to be protected.
“I have experienced the victim side of domestic violence recovery, as a very young person. In my early childhood, I was lucky enough to get away from it safely because of the courage of my own mother. And so, that was a long term recovery process. I understand the transformative power, and the healing power of patience,” he said.
“I think that it’s important that people know what’s in someone’s heart. And how do you determine that? Through campaigns, slogans. How do you determine that through recitations of cases and achievements? You determine it by knowing someone’s history–where they come from. What drives them and motivates them? I do think it’s important, in terms of transparency, to talk about my background,” said Pappas.
Pappas, a long-time progressive, has been in private practice for the past six years. He also spent six years working as a policy adviser for former state representative and longtime progressive Jim Ferlo.
Pappas says he will continue to push for alternatives to cash-bail, including community-sponsored release options, which includes finding housing, employment, and transportation for defendants. Pappas wants to work with the medical and research community, and with nonprofits that are foundation-funded to develop alternatives.
He also wants to ”stop throwing this blunt instrument of incarceration and arrest at every single social problem,” said Pappas.
“It gives me inspiration to develop trauma-informed procedural justice practices, to make sure that people feel safe when they come to court through patience and understanding,” he said,
With that model in mind, Pappas has been making changes at the district court level through expanding access to affordable housing, pushing back against mass incarceration and seeking alternatives to cash bail and summary warrants for non-payments for small amounts.
“All of those things have been implemented successfully,” he said, “Now, at the Common Pleas level, what it creates is an opportunity to implement that vision of justice successfully, on a much larger scale. Going from 30,000 people affected, to 1.2 million county-wide.”
‘Reliance on alternatives to cash bail improves public safety, improves the likelihood that someone is going to come to court’
Pappas progressive approach to the courts also generated pushback from law enforcement and judicial administrators in early 2018. Headlines peppered local media platforms framing Pappas’ decisions as a threat to public safety.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that a Chinese immigrant named Yan Mo left the country after Pappas granted a non-monetary bond. At the time, Pappas told the P-G that the case “slipped through the cracks.” When asked about the case recently, Pappas declined to discuss individual cases.
Stories like these eventually disappeared from the headlines and were replaced with stories highlighting the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania calling the use of cash bail in Allegheny County “disturbing.” All the while, Pappas continued to work to eliminate cash bail in his district.
“Access to justice should be fair across the board, not dependent upon how much money you have in the bank,” Pappas said, “I think people realize that alternatives to cash bail are more effective to ensure that someone comes to court and the community is safe upon their release.”
Of Pappas’ 2018 caseload, pre-trial recidivism rate in cases with non-monetary conditions was nine percent. Seven percent of his cases failed to appear. According to Pappas, 10 out of the 13 folks who did re-offend in cases, their violations were drug or alcohol related.
“When I look at this data…number one, reliance on alternatives to cash bail improves public safety, improves the likelihood that someone is going to come to court. Number two, one way we could further improve that is developing alternatives to cash bail that specifically for people who are suffering from mental health or drug and alcohol related issues,” said Pappas.
And while the results from the alternatives to cash bail aren’t perfect, cash bail, alternatively, doesn’t stop defendants from reoffending, either. And sometimes those cases can be violent.
In 2017, William Hoston, was out on bond in two separate cases when he was charged with homicide. According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Hoston was first charged with burglary when a district judge set his bond at $5,000. Mr. Hoston posted bond the next day and missed his next hearing. At his Dec. 2 arraignment, Hoston had his bail increased to $10,000 and then doubled for failing to appear. Hoston again posted bond and while free was arrested on homicide charges. He later pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and is serving a five-year sentence.
Balancing public safety concerns with understanding of other factors that may bring somebody into the criminal courts system –like addiction, poverty, lack of mental health resources–is something Pappas considers on a case by case basis.
“There are some instances where detaining someone might be warranted if they pose such a threat. If folks just aren’t safe around them and they aren’t safe around others,” Pappas said, ”But if the government is going to take away somebody’s liberty, then it must also take responsibility for them regaining it. Or regaining it to the greatest extent possible. This is not something we have done very well by under-emphasizing rehabilitation and over-emphasizing incapacitation.”
Pappas credits President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark of the Family Division of the 5th Judicial District of Pennsylvania with advocating for trauma-informed practices in the courtroom and says his model is similar.
It starts out with treating everyone who stands in front of him with dignity and respect. It also means ensuring that he is using proper pronouns for every person and getting names exactly right. It means acknowledging official statuses: Doctor, Sergeant, Detective, etc.
“These are the things that judges have to do to make sure that their decision-making is transparent. That they’re acknowledging the dignity and humanity of everybody that comes into their court. That they’re showing everybody in the courtroom–even the folks whose cases aren’t being heard that time–that’s what they should be able to expect whenever they have their turn in front of the judge,” he said.
Pappas said he is a big proponent of making sure to take time on every case–not rush through a hearing. It is also a way to work towards harm-reduction and equity.
When he first took office in 2018, local media stories reported that Pappas’ took too long to get through his cases during the work day. Less than a month into his term, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, “…District Judge Pappas’ court session began at 12:30 p.m. that day and there were 70 to 75 cases scheduled. Although that number of cases might run “a little over” the expected 4:30 p.m. finish time, Ms. Stock said, she got calls from staff that the court session was still going at 6:30 p.m..”
In the beginning, Pappas was assigned a schedule of 70 to 75 cases in one day. Some scheduled concurrently. It is a process referred to as “case stacking,” and is common in magisterial courts. It often forces long wait-times for everyone involved: law enforcement, attorneys and those appearing before the court. Folks who have taken off work, who have obstacles when it comes to transportation or child care, who perhaps, are using a sick day or a paid time off to appear in court, can sit and wait for hours before their case is heard.
When a judge is juggling multiple cases in a packed schedule, the process can feel rushed when it is finally your turn. A year long investigation published by PennLive and Spotlight PA discovered that in 2019, “…many of the state’s roughly 500 district judges only had courtroom appearances scheduled a few days a week.”
Pappas said he wanted to take his time and so he staggered his schedule. Case stacking, he says, is not conducive to trauma-informed care and it does not uphold procedural justice. Folks deserve to be heard and allowed the time to explain themselves. And, if they are taking the time to be punctual for their hearing, so should he.
So, Pappas stopped scheduling 75 cases in a single day. He schedules hearings throughout the week and limits how many he hears a day. Pittsburgh municipal court adopted a staggered scheduling approach during the COVID-19 pandemic to mitigate the spread of the virus. When hearings transitioned to online, the staggered schedule remained. Pappas hopes the practice continues into the future.
Diversity and bias
Something that Pappas loves to talk about is bias. He says he wants to work to address systemic bias in the justice system and the best way to do that is advocating for leaders who are diverse in lived experience, identity, and education.
“At the economic level, at the cultural, racial, ethnic, religious level, whether it has to do with LGBTQ, our justice system has an established history of treating minorities in a way that’s more harsh, and it’s less fair. And this transition, this judicial cycle, this year, it’s time to really step up and address that. We at this time need a new generation of leaders,” Pappas said.
Everyone is human, says Pappas, even judges and journalists. But, when that bias goes unchecked, it is no longer unconscious, but institutional and systemic. Pappas said that implicit bias happens at the community level, at the time of arrest, in the courtroom, and in the headlines.
“And if it happens just once, it can affect every aspect of the case,” said Pappas, “And so that’s why it’s so important for each and every system actor, whether it be staff, whether it be officers on the street, or judges in the courtroom, public defenders or district attorneys at the council tables, it needs to be something that everybody is acknowledging and dealing with in a very direct way. And I see that happening more and more, even in just the last three years since I’ve taken office, but it’s not time to let up on it. Now it’s time to even double down.”