At Last, the Moment Is Ripe for Real Criminal Justice Reform

There's growing, bipartisan recognition that mass incarceration is a massive mistake. Can Philadelphia lead the way?

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Last Tuesday, President Barack Obama made the case for a fundamental shift in America’s approach to crime and punishment.

He rattled off an array of terrifying statistics: 2.2 million U.S. prisoners (that’s four times as many as there were in 1980); one million fathers behind bars; $80 billion spent each year to keep those prisons operating.

“What is that doing to our communities? What is that doing to their children?” Obama said, addressing the NAACP national convention right here in Philadelphia. “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we’ve got to do something about it.”

A day later, former President Bill Clinton took to the same stage, and owned up to his lamentable role in fueling America’s law-and-order mania: the passage of his 1994 crime bill, which funded new prisons and increased sentences for many federal crimes. “I signed a bill that made the problem worse, and I want to admit it,” Clinton told the convention.

Meanwhile, in Washington, there is unmistakable momentum building for criminal justice reform, and not just on the Democratic side of the aisle. Republican Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn was busy bashing Obama over the Iran nuclear monitoring deal, but when he was asked about the President’s speech by Politico, Cornyn said: “We’ve actually been working on it for quite a while.” He suggested legislation could be coming in a matter of weeks.

Deep-red states like Utah, Alabama, Georgia and Nebraska are all exploring ways to reduce their prison populations by rolling back three-strike laws or reducing sentences for non-violent offenders.

“There’s a different feel about criminal justice all over. When the Koch brothers are talking about prison reform, you know something is in the air,” says attorney David Rudovsky, a longtime crusader for criminal justice reform in Philadelphia. “I’ve been around too long to believe anything is going to happen overnight, but it is moving in that direction.”

Criminal justice reform is maddeningly difficult. Political sensitivities around crime are acute. All it takes is one bad guy facing a drug charge who’s released without posting bail to pull a trigger … Somebody is dead, and inevitably the media wants to know who-is-responsible-for-letting-the-killer-out-of-lockup. So it takes real political courage to enact the sort of criminal justice reform that’s needed to chip away at mass incarceration.

And it takes coordinated courage, not just one brave pol. You need buy-in from the mayor that oversees the police force, the state legislature that enacts the sentencing laws, the elected district attorney that prosecutes alleged offenders, and the elected judges that hear the cases.

Do we have that in Philadelphia? Maybe. Maybe not.

There are some very convincing signs (his tentative plan to end cash bail for non-violent offenders, his zeal last year to decriminalize marijuana) that Democratic nominee Jim Kenney will make criminal justice reform a central priority if he’s elected mayor.  The city’s judiciary has resisted some reforms, but it has embraced others. Even in Harrisburg — hardly a bleeding-edge-of-reform kind of town — there is growing bipartisan interest in criminal justice reform, such as erasing criminal records for offenders convicted of minor crimes.

Then there’s District Attorney Seth Williams. Williams won his office running as the antidote to the hard-nosed lock-em-up Lynne Abraham, and he’s certainly instituted a lot of changes to the DA’s office that upset the old guard. But Williams has also alienated some progressives with his robust support of the death penalty, and his decision not to prosecute two cops who shot Brandon Tate-Brown last December.

Williams also has an eye on higher office. He toyed with the notion of running for Senate next year and there’s widespread speculation that he might challenge embattled State Attorney General Kathleen Kane. Would he be better or worse off politically in a statewide contest if he embraces reforms that lock fewer people up? In a phone interview, Williams sounds every bit the reformer he was as a first-time candidate.

“America had about the same percentage of our population in prison from 1790 to about 1970. It was the same percentage. Then President Nixon talked about being tough on crime, and created all these mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders,” Williams says. “These are people who did bad things; they sold drugs, which are a scourge. But they weren’t violent, and we overreach, and now our prisons are over-bursting. There may be different ways for us to treat various offenders.”

When I ask him about the growing momentum for criminal justice reform, he says other people are “catching up” to where he was as far back as 2005, when he ran for DA the first time, and lost to Abraham.

Williams touts the city’s new diversionary programs, like the Project Dawn Court (which doles out alternative justice and rehab services for prostitutes) and The Choice Is Yours, a yearlong program for first-time drug offenders that includes drug counseling and job training, in lieu of a jail term. He wants more funding for those programs, and thinks some of the savings the city gets by reducing its jail population should be reinvested in diversionary programs with proven records. And he thinks it’s time for Harrisburg to consider lighter mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug dealers.

“We’re not talking about a kingpin. We’re talking pookie and man-man on the corner at 60th and Washington,” Williams says. “We don’t need to warehouse them.”

What’s a reasonable goal? Rudovsky thinks the city can reduce its jail population by 20 to 25 percent, and that’s without any changes in mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which would have to be made at the state level. That’s a start, anyway, and one that could save the city tens of millions of dollars a year.