A New Normal in Philadelphia: A Dispatch from the Field

Posted July 11, 2018 by Reuben Jones

By Reuben Jones, JLUSA’s Philadelphia Campaign Coordinator

The Philadelphia that I grew up in was a very tough place for its African American residents.  In the late 1960s-early 1970s Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, who famously said, “If the prisons are crowded, if we need more prisons, let’s build them,” ruled the Black community with an iron fist.  He gave his officers carte blanche to kick in doors and use their nightsticks at will, which they had no problem doing.  During his tenure as Mayor from 1972-1980 he continued his reign of terror, and young black men like myself viewed incarceration as practically inevitable.  Rizzo went after African American activists with a special vengeance. In 1970 he staged a raid on Black Panther headquarters and publicly stripped those who were there naked at gunpoint in order to humiliate them. He presided over the “MOVE” stand-off in 1978, which led to the 1985 MOVE standoff, which became the first and only time in American history that a city dropped a bomb on its own citizens, on a residential block. (Rizzo wasn’t Mayor at the time, but the anti MOVE sentiment he espoused and the reckless assault on Black lives was a carry-over from his regime and will forever be a part of his legacy).

Although Frank Rizzo has been gone for decades, his brand of policing lasted a very long time. The fact is that until now, it has been “normal” in Philadelphia for African Americans to be harassed, stereotyped, stopped and frisked, arrested, and incarcerated at phenomenally high rates.  According to a 2015 New York Times analysis, 36,000 black men are “missing” from Philadelphia primarily because of incarceration or early death. According to recent statistics, Philadelphia is not only one of the country’s most incarcerated cities, but Philadelphia also incarcerates black men and men of color at a high rate. Almost 90% of the people incarcerated in Philadelphia county jails are people of color. Philadelphia incarcerates people of color at a rate of almost 9 to 1 compared to the rate of incarceration for Caucasian men.  We are working hard to make sure that those days are coming to an end.

Today, Philadelphia’s decarceration movement is creating a “new normal” for our city—a criminal justice system that is fair, humane, and much, much smaller.  To get there it’s essential that we have a District Attorney who supports our vision.   We had a huge victory in November 2017 with the landslide election of civil rights attorney Larry Krasner who has promised a criminal justice revolution.  In February he issued his “New Policies” memo which, among other things, instructed prosecutors not to charge possession of marijuana, regardless of weight, to divert more people in order to avoid convictions, and to justify their sentencing recommendations, on the record, with a cost-benefit analysis that takes into account the safety benefits, the impact on victims, the interruption of the defendants’ connections to family, employment, and public benefits, and the actual financial cost of incarceration.  Krasner has also eliminated cash bail for a range of low level offenses.  And of critical importance he seeks community input and takes our recommendations seriously.

Because of mass incarceration, Philadelphia is home to five county jails, and one of our priorities is to close as many of them as possible.  Our first partial victory came swiftly.  In November 2017 we launched the #CLOSEthecreek Campaign targeting the House of Correction.  Known locally as “the Creek,” the building dates from 1874 and is a human rights disaster.   In April, Mayor Jim Kenny announced that the jail would be closed by 2020, and by June, it was completely empty.  But we’re not done with the Creek yet because the Mayor says he wants to continue maintaining it, at a cost of $700,000 per year, in case the jail population balloons at some point in the future.  We’re calling for the building’s demolition.  We should be building community, not throwing money at a landmark of oppression.

To create a new normal we have to push our elected leaders to think about change in broad strokes.  It will take bold leadership to turn Philadelphia from the most incarcerated large city in America to the “cradle of liberty” it’s supposed to be.  Two issues that I am laser focused on right now are the use of risk assessment tools and electronic monitoring.  The State Sentencing Commission is considering the use of risk assessment algorithms at the sentencing phase, and we are vigorously opposing their adoption.  The data points these tools use to calculate “risk” are racially biased—for example, whether or not you finished high school, if your father was formerly incarcerated, if there’s any kind of mental health concern in your family.   Their adoption would have a devastating impact on people of color in poor communities who come into contact with the criminal justice system.  The Sentencing Commission held public hearings in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, and we flooded the hearings with concerned citizens, lawyers, community activists, people with lived experience and business people.  We demanded that the Commission not implement such a Draconian measure.  Because of our opposition, the vote was postponed.  Now we need to get them to take it off the table completely.

The increasing use of GPS ankle bracelets to electronically monitor people on probation is a growing threat to individual privacy and it’s also intrusive for communities that are directly impacted.  The case of rapper Meek Mills put a spotlight on this issue.  When he was released from jail for an alleged probation violation, he was released to ankle monitoring.  We celebrated because at least he was out of jail.  But there are a thousand Meek Mills in jail across the city, and 60 percent of them are there as a result of violating probation, not because of a new crime.  If you have hundreds of people in a specific neighborhood who are monitored electronically, that means the community as a whole is under surveillance.  We are pushing back against the expansion of this technological “fix.” As the era of mass incarceration draws to a close, instead of concrete prisons we are going to end up with electronic prisons, or “E-carceration” if this trend continues. That’s something we draw a hard line on, and the city knows it.

On July 7th we got more good news when the City publicly shared its goal of reducing the incarcerated population by half over a period of five years.  This major victory is the direct result of the hard work and dedication of the #CLOSEtheCreek partners and grassroots organizers, including the No215 Jail Coalition, The Center for Returning Citizens (TCRC), The Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project (YASP), Decarcerate PA, the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, and the Coalition for a Just D.A. We applaud the administration and we believe that the rapid decarceration Philadelphia has achieved, indicates further decarceration – to no more than 3,000 people – is possible. We encourage all elected leaders in Philadelphia to work toward this goal.

For me, personally, I love the way our movement is charting the trajectory of criminal justice transformation for future generations.   I love the way we get to hold elected officials accountable, and that we get to show the world what democracy looks like, and what fair criminal justice policy looks like.  I love that we get to bring people home to their families and prevent them from sitting in a county jail for a year or two just because they can’t afford to buy their freedom. Or, because the system moves so slowly that they’re willing to pack people in like cattle and have them just wait, paving the way for a guilty plea simply to gain release.  A few days before Father’s Day, I had the great pleasure of posting bail for ten fathers, thanks our work at the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund.  A group of us greeted the men as they were being released and gave them toiletries, welcome home care packages, and a ride home. It was a real high to watch them being greeted by their families.  A few weeks later we held a Bail Fund Community Dinner at Calvary Church (48th & Baltimore), and some of the men spoke about their experience.  About fifty people came and it was one of the best Bail Fund Community Dinners we’ve had.  This is our new normal. We are about ending mass incarceration and building strong communities, and there’s no stopping us now.