The Brief: Can Philly Reduce Its Prison Population?

Jim Kenney's willingness to tackle jail overcrowding will be the true test of his commitment to criminal justice reform.

1. The city won a $150,000 MacArthur Grant to tackle mass incarceration.

The gist: Philadelphia is one of 20 jurisdictions that has been selected by the MacArthur Foundation to develop a plan to reduce its prison population. Next year, the nonprofit will pick 10 areas to receive a second round of grants worth between $500,000 and $2 million. 

Why it matters: When Mayor Michael Nutter came into office, the prison population had soared to more than 9,000 inmates. To his credit, the population has significantly dropped since then. As of Monday, there were 8,063 inmates in Philadelphia’s custody. But the city’s jails are still overcrowded: They were built to a hold a maximum of 6,500 prisoners. Furthermore, the city is looking to build another prison. Under Nutter’s watch, the city has lived through the Great Recession, decreased its homicide rate to a 46-year low … and yet, it hasn’t been able to get mass incarceration under control. This is despite the fact that Nutter has taken steps to reduce the population that even public defenders have praised.

Could Philadelphia’s presumptive next mayor, Jim Kenney, do what Nutter couldn’t? Ed McCann, the city’s first district attorney, told me earlier this year that the city would need to totally rethink the so-called War on Drugs in order to get the prison population to below 6,500. “Having been at this for 25 years, I really have a viewpoint that there at least needs to be a conversation about the way we prosecute, investigate, arrest on the narcotics cases,” said McCann. Kenney successfully led the charge to decriminalize pot in Philly. Whether he can get the city’s prison population under control, if he is elected, will be a true test of his commitment to criminal justice reform.

2. How did Manny Morales come within 846 votes of beating Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez?

The gist: The race between Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Manny Morales for the 7th Council District seat was supposed to be a breeze for her. Yes, Sánchez lacked the backing of the city’s Democratic Party. But she is a capable incumbent who scooped up endorsements from everyone from her onetime foe Danny Savage to three past city mayors. And Morales? Well, he was the guy whose Facebook page famously compared gay men to flatworms. But in the end, Sánchez won the primary race with only 53 percent of the vote.

Why it matters: How did it happen? Al Dia has an excellent analysis of the surprising Election Day tally. You should read it all, but two things stick out. First, endorsements really matter in down-ballot races:

Endorsement logic can … be applied to Morales’ victories. The three wards in which he was the clear favorite — the 7th, 19th, and 62nd — are led by three of Quiñones-Sánchez’s staunchest critics: Ángel Cruz, Carlos Matos, and Marge Tartaglione.

And second, politics isn’t the only thing that explains Sánchez’s narrow win. Some voters seem to be legitimately upset with her, so they protest-voted for Morales.

Ward politics aside, one 7th District constituent, who asked to remain anonymous, put the race a different way: “How many of Manny Morales’ votes were for Manny Morales, and how many were against María Quiñones-Sánchez? I voted for Sánchez, but it hurt to do it.”

Quiñones-Sánchez’s critics were quick to say the close race is evidence of the growing discontent about constituent services.

“The reason [Morales] got 46 percent of the vote is that the people in the barrio are tired,” said State Rep. Leslie Acosta. “They are ready for some changes. And not only later, but they are ready to hold elected officials accountable. We want services in our community that has been marginalized and neglected for a very long time.”

3. The Reckoning: Christine Flowers vs. Jim Kenney’s brother.

The gist: Shortly after Jim Kenney won this month’s primary election, Daily News columnist Christine Flowers penned an article slamming him. She took issue with, among other things, Kenney’s response to the three people who allegedly attacked two gay men in Center City in 2014:

Last September, the media exploded with tales of an alleged “gay bashing” in Center City where a same-sex couple claimed they’d been beaten up because of their sexual orientation. Without actually waiting for the details, the media types starting running with this “Matthew Shepard in Philly” story and Kenney jumped right on the bandwagon, calling for a federal investigation into the incident. He wrote a letter (he’s really big on writing letters) to U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger stating, “This violent and vicious attack on two human beings because they are gay is clearly a hate crime.”

Except for the fact that Kenney wasn’t there, didn’t talk to the principals, doesn’t apparently believe in due process and, oh, yeah, no hate-crime charges were ever filed.

Well, that’s really not fair at all. Kenney does believe in due process, for pot smokers. He’s championed the decriminalization of marijuana because he buys into the notion that pot prosecutions have a disproportionate impact on minorities.

That prompted a response by Kenney’s brother, Stephen. Here’s a snippet:

… On to Jim’s defense of the LGBT community, his promise to end stop-and-frisk and, as you put it, his cavalier attitude toward marijuana. Hold on tight to your Burberry bag and don’t fall off your Jimmy Choo’s, Miss Flowers, but believe it or not these are all about the same thing: fairness and equality. I have no idea what my brother’s personal opinions are about marijuana or homosexuality, and they don’t matter — and that’s the point here.

Stay with me now, Christine: The changes that Jim has made and will make as mayor in reference to these issues are about fairness and equality. As I see it, the next mayor of Philadelphia has the audacity, the gall, albeit the belief, that every single Philadelphian, regardless of race, creed, color, sexual orientation, financial status or any other difference has the absolute right to the same opportunities, chance for advancement and protection under the law.

Kooky huh? Hey, maybe he’s a Socialist … nah, I just wanted to give you something that would bring a smile to your face.

Why it matters: Because both columns were damn fun to read. That’s all.