(Photo by Albert Hong)
Expungement of criminal records, overcrowding in jails and prisons, gun violence and, of course, marijuana — these were some of the biggest topics that all eight candidates for district attorney were questioned about Wednesday night at a millennial-focused town hall.
The town hall was hosted by Philly Set Go (PSG), a political action committee (PAC) geared toward getting millennials to vote, at the Plays and Players Theater, where a packed room had a chance to hear what each candidate thought about certain issues and what they would do to resolve them. The questions were submitted by attendees online before the event and reviewed by the PSG board.
But first, as Meghan Claiborne, a board member of PSG, mentioned before asking the first question, it’s just as important for millennials to fully understand what the role of a DA entails before voting for a candidate:
The town hall then kicked off with asking each candidate for their platforms on expunging and sealing criminal records. As candidate Teresa Carr Deni mentioned, criminal records have the potential to keep people from getting the jobs they need to stay out of prison, especially during their major employment years, so she stated she supports a “clean slate bill on juveniles.”
Candidate Tariq El-Shabazz was next to offer his thoughts and, as he would continue to reiterate throughout the rest of the night, he had three D’s as part of his solution — “diversity” in the people making the decisions, common-sense “discretion” as to which cases actually should be tried in court and “diversion” programs to keep people out of prison.
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“As opposed to expungement, why don’t we prevent from giving them a record altogether?” El-Shabazz said. “For example, if you have somebody with a petty crime or minor drug offense, you put them in a pre-arrest program — there’s no arrest, there’s no fingerprinting, there’s no record of it at all. If they complete what they need to complete during the course of their time, then in fact you don’t arrest them at all.”
Candidate Joe Khan agreed with El-Shabazz and said as DA, he would not only help expand those expungement opportunities but also educate people who may not even know those kinds of programs exist. In terms of the lowest level drug offenses, Khan went ahead and said he believes the prosecution of those cases should end, “period.”
“We have to start treating those cases like public health issues, not criminal justice issues,” Khan said.
Incarceration would continue to make up a good chunk of the discussion, as prison overcrowding and reviewing past convictions, for which former DA Seth Williams created the city’s Conviction Review Unit back in 2014, came up in subsequent questions. The city’s broken bail system, which many of the candidates stated they would be up to reform on, came up as a definite pathway to a solution.
Candidate Rich Negrin said he wants to start a program that intervenes at two crucial steps of someone’s process in the criminal justice system.
“I believe the two most important moments in the life of an individual who’s caught up in the criminal justice system is that very first contact and that very first time they’re about to get that felony — that felony is a lifetime sentence of poverty,” Negrin said.
When it came to the Conviction Review Unit, which has yet to exonerate a single conviction, every candidate more or less believed it didn’t live up to its name and needed to be reworked. Like some of the other candidates, Jack O’Neill said he would want the unit to be staffed with more than just one staff member, such as a public defender who would be able to offer a different perspective.
Beth Grossman, the sole Republican running in this race who throughout the night stressed that there was a need for “political balance” in this historically Democratic city, recommended the help of outside agencies to also offer that outside perspective, such as the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.
“Perhaps outside eyes are the ones who need to look at this in some way, shape or form,” Grossman said.
But as El-Shabazz and Larry Krasner, an attorney who has made his intentions to decarcerate clear, would go on to say, it starts with the “character” and “integrity” of the DA in office and how that person’s leadership in turn would trickle down to other staff members.
How about the convictions that people are actually wanting but not getting? With questions of gun violence being brought up — how to reduce gun deaths (while also respecting the right to bear arms) and how to make sure less people get away with murder in the city — answers from the candidates touched on bettering community relations, working with former offenders and, again, addressing the roots of such issues.
Krasner was the first to bring up the “reality that gun shops in Philadelphia are lax and loose,” but he also emphasized how putting money into long-term solutions like public education and drug treatment is the first step to “healing society” by providing opportunities to the young men who are most likely to get themselves involved with gun violence.
“They need to have hope, they need to have a reason not to walk out the door and hang out with the guys in the corner, become part of a gang, pick up a gun and put blood on the street,” Krasner said.
O’Neill said as DA, he would make sure to expand programs like Focused Deterrence, a strategy Williams implemented in South Philly in 2013 that involves identifying a group of young men who are likely to use guns or get shot. However, El-Shabazz was quick to counter, saying that while Focused Deterrence “can work, it won’t work the way that it is.” In other words, El-Shabazz argued Focused Deterrence depends on the systemically racist targeting of “stop-and-frisk” neighborhoods, “codeword for Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.”
“If we can be clear, it all begins with community involvement, but if you’re going to expect somebody to come forward, they have to trust you,” El-Shabazz said.
It wouldn’t be a millennial-focused town hall without a Twitter-generated question though, and the question that was picked had to do with election integrity, something all candidates agreed is a serious issue that should be handled with an “even-handed and fair approach,” in the words of Krasner.
And marijuana? Legalization and decriminalization was the resounding answer across the board.
— Chris Brennan (@ByChrisBrennan) April 12, 2017
Closing remarks were what anyone could expect, until O’Neill threw shade at El-Shabazz:
From there, well, as our former community manager Mo Manklang said so eloquently:
Dear anyone still to host a #DAforPHL debate – just give everyone 20 minutes each for "closing statements" aka "FIRE IN THE HOLE"
— Mo Manklang (@MoManklang) April 13, 2017
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