Op-Ed: 17 Ways Kenney Can Help Fix the Justice System

Dietrich: These policies would give people with criminal records a second chance — and save taxpayers money to boot.

Photos by Jeff Fusco and Shutterstock.com

Photos by Jeff Fusco and Shutterstock.com

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from Community Legal Services attorney Sharon Dietrich.)

Nearly one in three American adults has a criminal record, the consequences of which have led to increased poverty around the country as well as here in Philadelphia. People with criminal records who are looking for jobs and housing often face major challenges, which not only hurt those individuals and their families but also city taxpayers. African-Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately likely to encounter such hurdles.

Thankfully, Mayor Jim Kenney has voiced strong support for initiatives that can help improve the lives of city residents with criminal records. Here’s a menu of policies that he should pursue to ensure that they get a real second chance:

  1. Make fewer arrests, and use more diversion programs. As marijuana decriminalization has shown, fewer arrests for minor infractions result in fewer people facing problems caused by criminal records. New Police Commissioner Richard Ross must direct the police department so that public safety and community relations — not arrests — are the guiding principle. The mayor should work with District Attorney Seth Williams to encourage increased use of diversion programs to reduce city’s prison population as well as to avoid encumbering minor offenders with records.
  2. Expunge more criminal records. The best way to reduce problems with criminal records is, quite frankly, to eliminate those records. The city should increase funding for legal representation in expungement cases, and support “Clean Slate,” a forthcoming state bill that will automatically seal many thousands of minor records without requiring court action.
  3. Write off old bail debts that are holding people back. In 2014, the First Judicial District of Philadelphia announced that it would cease trying to collect bail debts from before March 3, 2010. However, those judgments remain in the public records and cause problems for people seeking public benefits, gubernatorial pardons and a true fresh start.
  4. Address public perceptions of people with criminal records. There is a need to change hearts and minds by emphasizing the “people” part of “people with criminal records.” The mayor should continue to use his bully pulpit, hire people with criminal records in prominent and visible positions, and support public education efforts to achieve this.
  5. Create a subsidized jobs program that includes people with criminal records. The mayor should appoint a staff person to design a program to create jobs for those unable to find employment in the private market. It could be financed with reentry, workforce development and economic development funds.
  6. Provide more resources to the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations to enforce the city’s new “Fair Hiring” ordinance. Last year, former Mayor Michael Nutter signed a bill to expand Philadelphia’s “Ban the Box” rule, which limits the ways in which employers can ask job applicants if they have a criminal record. The new law provides comprehensive standards for how employers should evaluate criminal background checks. However, the commission had lacked the proper resources to even go after all the companies that may have violated the previous version of the law. With additional funding, the commission can better address employment discrimination faced by people with criminal records under the expanded law.
  7. Eliminate obstacles that people with criminal records face while applying to jobs in city government. The city should review its own hiring processes to remove any and all barriers that exist, and become a model employer of people with criminal records.
  8. Connect people who are leaving the Philadelphia Prison System with public benefits. The city should work with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and the U.S. Social Security Administration to implement procedures to ensure that, before anyone is released from prison, they sign up for any public benefits for which they qualify. This could include SSI, Social Security, food stamps, TANF and Medicaid. Having these benefits will enhance their chances of successful reintegration.
  9. Provide information about the city’s “BenePhilly” centers to people who are about to be released from prison. These centers can help them if they have difficulty getting benefits.
  10. Modify the admissions and evictions policies of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. The mayor should work with PHA to increase access to public housing for individuals with criminal records. First, PHA staff must begin requesting and reviewing the mitigating circumstances of people with criminal records before denying their applications for public housing due to past criminal activity. This isn’t just good policy; it’s also federal law. The housing agency must also create a process for reentering family members to be added to a PHA or Section 8 tenant’s lease. And finally, PHA’s eviction policies must be amended to delay eviction proceedings until a tenant’s criminal case has concluded.
  11. Modify the admissions policies of other subsidized housing providers, especially subsidized senior housing. Ensure that their admissions policies also conform to federal law, and that staff review an applicant’s mitigating circumstances before saying “no” to them because of a criminal record.
  12. Create a reentry case manager at the Office of Supportive Housing to work with the homeless population. Many homeless people face barriers to housing due to their criminal records.
  13. Train all staff members at the city’s Department of Human Services and community-based agencies to engage incarcerated parents. The city should do everything it can to make sure that children are visiting their mothers and fathers in prison.
  14. Develop in-house experts at Philadelphia DHS and community-based agencies who are focused on working with incarcerated parents. Create a high-level cabinet position or a unit at DHS dedicated to providing the aforementioned staff training, as well as to ensuring that incarcerated parents are identified and involved with their children. Alternatively, require each community-based agency to have an in-house expert on incarcerated parents.
  15. Maintain data on children of incarcerated parents. This data should measure how many children have incarcerated parents, where the incarcerated parent is located, and whether the incarcerated parent is the child’s mother or father. It should also track services provided to incarcerated parents, including whether they participated in the development of their case plan and were visited by their children. This data should also record outcomes for these children.
  16. Complete an in-depth review of the services provided to incarcerated parents at least once every two years. This will ensure that they’re getting the services they need.
  17. Implement video-conferencing between the Philadelphia Prison System and community-based agencies that serve families with incarcerated parents. This will improve communication between those parents and their children.

Sharon Dietrich is a lawyer with Community Legal Services, a Philadelphia-based legal aid program. Fellow CLS attorneys Kathleen Creamer, Rachel Garland and Amy Hirsch also contributed to this article.