(Photo by Tony Abraham)
After decades of bolstering a criminal justice system that perpetuates mass incarceration, recidivism and socioeconomic disparity, politicians on both sides of the aisle are beginning to call for reform.
In Philadelphia, a recent $3.5 million MacArthur Foundation grant aims to reduce the city’s staggeringly high prison population by 34 percent. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth is pursuing an innovative new funding strategy to cut recidivism rates while protecting taxpayers’ coinpurses.
Local leaders are determined to find a solution, and at a recent panel hosted by MacArthur and The Atlantic during the Democratic National Convention, officials and advocates spoke up about what needs to happen to move criminal justice reform forward, including:
- Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney
- Pa. Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel
- Defender Association of Philadelphia Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey
- Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams
- Redeemed founder William Cobb
Here are 10 ideas, insights and opinions from those folks about what’s wrong with the current system and how they’re hoping to move the needle forward in reforming crime and punishment.
1. “Four decades of bad criminal justice policy have gotten us a bloated system with no return on investment. Is it a good investment to invest $2.4 billion in a state department of corrections when we know that low-level individuals who come into state prison come out more likely to commit a crime? That makes absolutely no sense.” — Wetzel
2. “Education is a root cause. Fifty percent of everybody who comes into state prison doesn’t have a high school diploma. So don’t be surprised if you have a terrible education system that people are getting locked up.” — Wetzel
3. “We’re locking these guys up for selling drugs on the street corner. The largest drug dealers in the world are pharmaceutical companies.” — Kenney
4. “We decriminalized marijuana to keep 83 percent of people being arrested for possession who are African American or people of color. If you want to arrest a lot of people for smoking marijuana, go to the Eagles tailgate on a Sunday and arrest all the New Jersey suburbanites you want. I’m not judging them, they can do whatever they want. You can’t do an illegal pedestrian stop on a 20-year-old black kid who happens to have a joint in his pocket and he ends up getting locked up in handcuffs.” — Kenney
5. “If I’m a rich guy who sexually assaults someone and you’re a poor guy who steals a six pack of tighty-whities from Walmart, if your bail is $50 and my bail is $5 million and I have $5 million so I’m getting out but you don’t have $50 you’re staying in? That’s not about public safety. That’s about money.” — Wetzel
6. “It’s not the severity of punishment that changes behavior. It’s the certainty. My job, I believe, is this new paradigm of American prosecutors, to do all we can to prevent crime and to do all we can to reduce recidivism so people don’t get arrested over and over and over again. If you want to help me prevent crime, invest in early childhood education.” — Williams
7. “One of the things we’ll need for true reform to happen is a psychological reform. We’re going to have to change the narrative of what public safety is. Public safety shouldn’t just be echoed through law enforcement but echoed through needs identifications.” — Bradford-Grey
8. “I would love to see the ability for us to say, ‘We don’t need to have law enforcement in these areas, maybe we need to take that money and invest it in school therapists, school officers, therapeutic needs and healthcare professionals that can really address some of the underlying issues that are making people have this cyclical type of result.'” — Bradford-Grey
9. “Policy actually ends up driving culture after it’s been in place for a significant amount of time. We have to have policies and legislation in place that protect people that have been in conflict with the criminal justice system. Political will will change when people who have been adversely affected by the criminal justice system are voting based upon their values. We have to identify individuals who will put forward our platform.” — Cobb
10. “A felony conviction is an economic death sentence.” — Williams
Watch the whole panel below.
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