Philly Council panel organizing to help improve city’s criminal justice system

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    In Philadelphia, a special City Council committee on criminal justice reform is moving forward to name three co-chairs, including the chief of the city’s Defender Association and a former high-ranking police official.

    Council President Darrell Clarke proposed the committee, which was approved by City Council in December. Councilman Curtis Jones will serve as co-chair, along with retired deputy police commissioner Kevin Bethel and Keir Bradford-Grey, chief of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. 

    Committee leaders said they are building on the work being done by the city’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board, which was formed by the mayor’s office under the Nutter administration.

    The board has applied for a grant from the MacArthur Foundation that could provide at least $4 million to cut Philadelphia’s jail population by 34 percent over three years. That includes many defendants who are waiting for trial and have not yet been convicted of a crime as well as those being detained for probation violations.

    The difference between the board and his committee, Clarke said, would be the “level of transparency.”

    “Everybody comes to City Council. If I ask anybody in this room, maybe two people can tell you where CJAB meets. Anybody?” he said. “So we want to use this platform and this format, which is a very, very extremely public venue to have a level of conversation.”

    Like City Council meetings, with the exception of executive sessions, CJAB gatherings are open to the public. 

    Jones is Clarke’s appointed representative on the board, and Bethel is a former member. 

    Bradford-Grey, a current member of CJAB, said one of her goals for the council committee is to help those who will get out of jail as a result of the board’s reforms.

    “So if I’m a person that gets released on an ankle monitor, I could go to programming, I could go to educational, vocational training,” she said. “If I have issues with domestic, I could go to some pastoral counseling. A lot of churches do this already piecemeal, but they don’t know how to relate it to our efforts here in the criminal justice system.”

    The committee will hold public hearings to get input and will eventually release a report with recommendations on ways to help those being released from city jails.

    Clarke said it’s a moral and a financial issue.

    “We can’t keep continuing to think that spending $35,000 a year on an individual to stay in prison is the way to go,” he said. “It makes no sense.”

    Although Clarke spoke of the urgent need for reforms, he could not say exactly when the committee will issue its recommendations.

    Other members include Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, Ann Schwartzman with the Pennsylvania Prison Society, and defense attorney Tariq El-Shabazz. It will also include Mayor Jim Kenney’s pick to lead CJAB and representatives from the district attorney’s office and the First District Court. 

    Jones said the committee is still searching for representation from victims advocate groups.

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