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Bringing Arts and Culture into the Work of Public Safety and Criminal Justice

Next City

By Emily Nonko

At free legal clinics across Philadelphia, the first thing that The People’s Paper Co-op — working with organizations like the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity and Community Legal Services — asks participants to do is something out of the ordinary.

Attendees are there to begin a process with lawyers to clear or clean up their criminal records. But first, they’re asked to print out these records, tear them up, and put them in blenders to create new, blank sheets of handmade paper.

The People’s Paper Co-op then asks each participant to respond to a prompt: “Without these records I am…”

Their written responses, along with a “Polaroid” photo called their “reverse mug shot,” are embedded into the new paper comprised of their shredded records. In an ongoing initiative, People’s Paper Co-op has taken each page to sew into a giant paper quilt.

It’s a powerful arts-based initiative that completely transforms an otherwise stressful, sterile legal clinic, organizers say. The work is one of four initiatives highlighted in a recent report by the Urban Institute looking at the ways arts and culture can strengthen community safety programming and criminal justice in cities across the country.

“We’ve started thinking about public safety more expansively — beyond making crime go down, or keeping people out of trouble,” says Mark Treskon, one of the authors of the report. “Sometimes the more easily-identified metrics, like dropping recidivism rates or dropping crime rates, can miss what’s going on.”

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