At a Democratic National Convention panel on police and court reform held on Tuesday at the Field House restaurant across from Reading Terminal Market, a string of Pennsylvania officials expressed broad support for reforming the city and state criminal justice systems. Topics ranged from bail reform, to ending mass incarceration, to the little-known problem of probation detainers, highlighted in a recent City&State PA investigation.
At the panel, hosted by The Atlantic and moderated by its Senior Editor Ron Brownstein, both Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Pennsylvania Prison Secretary John Wetzel said the state needed to arrest and incarcerate fewer people.
Wetzel said overcrowded jails were the legacy of traditional “law and order” policies.
“Anecdotes are what got us here,” Wetzel said. “Four decades of bad criminal justice policy have gotten us a bloated system with no return on investment. Is it a good investment to put $2.4 billion into the state correctional system when we know that that low-level offenders come out more likely to commit crime?”
Kenney echoed those sentiments, saying the city was “still digging out” from the iron-fist policing tactics of the era of Mayor Frank Rizzo, almost four decades ago. He added that Philadelphia must reform its cash bail system, which, he said, was biased against the poor.
“We have 7,000 or so people incarcerated in our county jail system – 60 percent of them are there because they cannot make bail,” he elaborated. “So they sit for $140 a day for 60, 90, a hundred days because they can’t make bail.”
Keir Bradford-Grey, Chief of Philadelphia’s Public Defenders, said that Philadelphia also had to address the probationers and parolees that are sometimes sucked back into jails for minor or nonviolent violations of their supervised release. These individuals now make up one-third of Philadelphia’s county jail population and are ineligible for bail, a City&State PA report found.
“We continue to punish people even after they’ve served their sentences,” Bradford-Grey said.
Philadelphia DA Seth Williams, also speaking on the panel, said the city should move toward opening day-reporting centers as an alternative to jailing people on probation or parolees who violate the terms of their release.
“We can have a place for people to go, not far from their home, in their neighborhood, for maybe two hours a day...and get them the services they need,” he explained.
Kenney also advocated for more gun control in the Keystone State, which he jokingly referred to as “gun heaven.” Kenney contrasted these statements with the Nixonian law-and-order messaging that emerged from last week’s Republican National Convention.
“What happened in Cleveland was an abomination – I’ve never seen such hate and vitriol,” he said. “If it wasn’t so serious, it would be funny.”
However, Vikrant Reddy, from the conservative-leaning Koch Foundation, argued that ending mass incarceration was a bipartisan issue. He said that while conservative support for criminal justice reform was often framed around fiscal lines, the issue also touched on the issue of government overreach and “overcriminalization.”
As one infamous example, He cited the death of Eric Garner in New York City, a man who was initially stopped by NYPD officers because he was selling loose cigarettes on a sidewalk in Staten Island.
“One question that is commonly asked on the American right is, ‘Why in the world was this man interrogated by police officers for selling individual cigarettes on the street corner?’” he related. “Why is that a crime?”