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Reforming the justice system from a courtroom isn’t cutting it for Keir Bradford-Grey

Keir Bradford-Grey. September 29, 2016 Category: FeatureFeaturedMediumPeople
Everyone is talking about criminal justice reform. Keir Bradford-Grey wants to see more action.

“I feel the needle moving in terms of the conversation,” said the Defender Association of Philadelphia chief, whose organization enforces political neutrality. “I feel like systems are so bogged down and compounded, the people in the systems are so overburdened, that it’s so hard to look at a way to do things different.”

Policymakers on both sides of the political aisle have rallied around reform, but what is actually being done to create real change?

Nationally, the federal government has cut off funding for private prisons. Federal reentry counselors are being advised by formerly incarcerated individuals such as Philadelphia’s own El Sawyer. Locally, a $3.5 million MacArthur grant is being used to cut recidivism rates, supported by a growing network of nonprofit providers, grassroots advocacy initiatives and public policy tweaks supporting successful re-entry.

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Bradford-Grey isn’t satisfied with that progress. The focus right now, she said, is on the front end of criminal justice — supports being put in place for the thousands of people in Philadelphia alone who have been or are currently caught up in the justice system.

The defense attorney wants to see more supports in the child welfare system that take generational poverty and injustice into account.

"The people in the systems are so overburdened that it's so hard to look at a way to do things different."
Keir Bradford-Grey

“When we talk about criminal justice reform, we rarely mention the child welfare system and the trajectory of those children,” she said. “The struggles they have, the trauma and abuse, they perpetuate into our justice system and we never look back to see where we failed, where we went wrong and what we need to do to fill those gaps.”

There are no “special accommodations” made for children who grow up dealing with the collateral damages of abuse and neglect, she said. Those are things she’d like the city’s pending MacArthur-funded recidivism reduction algorithm to account for — something she made clear at a recent City Council hearing.

If there’s some kind of algorithm created, said Bradford-Grey (with emphasis on the “if”),  it needs to look at the history of abuse, trauma and treatment services.

“Sometimes you’ll see there wasn’t much [treatment],” she added.

A self-described “idealist who thinks she can save the world,” Bradford-Grey sees her nonprofit providing supports beyond the courtroom.

“We’re not just people who go and represent people to get them off,” she said. “We’re also community problem-solvers. We deal with the issues that land people at our doorsteps. We use social workers to help address needs. We deal with policy issues that impact people systemically. Those things perpetuate the cycle.”

The cycle. Another thing we all talk about, and another thing we haven’t been able to stop. Real change will require a psychological shift in believing the cycle can cease — rather, knowing that it in fact does cease, if only momentarily.

“One thing we have to let people understand is that, even if someone goes to jail, they are coming out,” Bradford-Grey said. “If we do not address these issues, they won’t be any better off.”

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