Start Early for Real Criminal Justice Reform

The Philadelphia Tribune

By Ryanne Persinger

Philadelphia leaders acknowledge that the city’s 26 percent poverty rate is a major factor in local crime and incarceration.

Impoverishment aligns itself with violence, crime, drug abuse, dysfunctional families, loss and hopelessness, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney told a room full of attendees wrapping up breakfast at the National Forum on Criminal Justice at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel Monday morning.

“We have basically two cities here,” Kenney said. “One is the city of power cranes that are popping up all over the skyline; people are doing well, millennials are moving in, and immigrants are moving in. Then we have folks who have been living in neighborhoods for generations who are hopeless.”

For that reason, Kenney said, it’s important to invest in quality universal pre-K, community schools, parks and recreation centers, and libraries, stressing to people that they’re not forgotten.

Kenney provided the remarks during a panel discussion on criminal justice, which also included Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams and the state’s Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel as participants. Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, the Democratic candidate for state attorney general against Montgomery County Republican John Rafferty, served as moderator.

“We need to take people out of the criminal justice pipeline, by not having some 20-year-old locked up because he has two joints in his pocket and winds up with a criminal record that he carries on his back trying to get a job for the next 20 years,” Kenney added. “It costs money and it doesn’t solve anyone’s problems, and it continues to exacerbate the rate of poverty that we face and that we need to change.”

Williams agreed and stressed the importance of reducing recidivism, the motivation behind implementing The Choice is Yours program, mirrored after San Francisco’s Back on Track initiative started by then-San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris — now California’s Attorney General.

“In California, like Pennsylvania, I could send someone to jail for mandatory one-to-two years for selling two grams of crack, two sugar packets worth of crack, and the majority of these people don’t have high school degrees,” Williams said. “They’re going to go to state prison to get a Ph.D. in thuggery and come home with a felony conviction, which is an economic death sentence. And we’re spending about $36,000 to $40,000 to incarcerate them with about a 63 percent recidivism rate.”

The Choice is Yours program, for offenders age 18 to 29, gives participants a chance to expunge their record if they attend a yearlong program through Jewish Employment and Vocational Services (JEVS). Williams said the program resulted in an 8 percent recidivism rate and only costs about $4,000 per person.

“We recognize that to prevent crime, we have to address addiction and give people the treatment that they need,” Williams said. “We have to reduce truancy, we have to improve schools for all. We have to have high-quality early childhood education, we have to have more jobs. We know these things, and we have to have the political will to implement them.”

Wetzel, who was first appointed secretary of corrections by then Governor-elect Tom Corbett in 2010, said the 63 percent recidivism rate in the Commonwealth is defined as rearrest and reincarceration.

“When you look at who’s in our prisons, you can’t make any other argument other than we have a large population of mentally ill individuals,” he said. “We have an even larger population of addicted individuals, and it’s racially disparate,” Wetzel said. “My fear is that we’re not going to get it right, and by not getting it right we’re not going to take data and research and let that drive policy [to fix the system]. We’re going to try to fix the system built on anecdotes.”

When you put the wrong people in prison, Wetzel said, then they are more likely to commit a crime once released.

“Historically on criminal justice, our system is predicated on justice service,” Wetzel added in reference to the PA Justice Reinvestment Experience, which is aimed at correction spending and improving public safety. “We don’t care what the outcome is. It’s really about retribution. That’s not smart, and it’s not going to get us what we need. What we need is people coming out of prison, coming out of jail and less likely to commit a crime. And more importantly, more likely to be successful citizens.”

The conference concludes Wednesday and brings together practitioners and decision-makers in state, local and tribal communities to address public safety issues. The Forum was sponsored by the National Criminal Justice Association, the Justice Research and Statistics Association and IJIS Institute, originally founded as the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute.