Putting books before bars starts now

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    (Photo via ShutterStock)

    This week, City Councilman Bobby Henon decided not to advance a bill that would have authorized the city to spend over $7 million for land that could be used to build a prison to replace the aging House of Correction.

    Henon, who sponsored the bill on behalf of the Nutter administration, held the bill under pressure from a broad-based coalition. There were neighbors and advocates, prisoners and activists, educators and schoolchildren. It was a vast cross section of the people, and Henon, along with the other members of Council, heard the people clearly.

    That is as it should be. It is the people, after all, who elect our representatives. We elect them in the hope that they will echo our voices rather than overshadow them; that they will honor our wishes rather than dismiss them; that they will place at the forefront of every decision the interests of those they represent.

    In this case, the people they represented believed that we should put education before incarceration, put people before prisons, and put books before bars.

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    We the people could not accept spending upwards of $500 million to build a new prison, when we couldn’t spend one fifth of that to fully fund our schools.

    When we raised that issue, some of our officials argued that schools and prisons are funded from two separate budgets. The day-to-day school budget, they said, consists of operating funds, which pay for salaries, contracts and the like. New prisons, on the other hand, come from capital funds, which are borrowed against municipal bonds.

    We listened to that reasoning, and after carefully weighing the argument, we rejected it because of this simple fact: Municipal bonds are repaid by taxpayers, so the money for both prisons and schools comes from us.

    With that truth in mind, we the people declared that schools should take priority over prisons, not only because it is morally right, but also because it is fiscally right. Spending $12,000 annually on a student is a far wiser investment than spending three times as much on a prisoner.

    And make no mistake. Students who fail in school are more likely to become prisoners.

    Most of the inmates in our city’s prison system don’t perform at a high school level, according to Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla. Such prisoners end up staying in the House of Correction for months—not because they’ve been found guilty in a court of law, but because they are too impoverished to pay bail.

    That’s the case for too many of those in our city’s prison system, and that’s wrong.

    But here’s the good news. Councilman Henon’s decision to delay the vote on the land purchase bill will give us time. It will allow us to focus on finding alternatives to imprisoning those who have been accused of nonviolent offenses.

    We can start by placing a serious focus on the $150,000 MacArthur Foundation planning grant the city received this year. That grant, which went to Philadelphia and 19 other jurisdictions, is part of an initiative called the Safety and Justice Challenge, the MacArthur Foundation’s $75 million program to reduce over-incarceration. The goal of the initiative is to change the way we think about and use jails by assembling evidence-based plans to reduce incarceration.

    Philadelphia Common Pleas President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper told me in an interview that the Criminal Justice Advisory Board–a group of criminal justice stakeholders–is currently working on that competitive grant on behalf of our city. The participants come from the courts, the prisons, the District Attorney’s office, probation and parole, the police department, and a number of community-based non-profits. That group is working to produce data on evidence-based alternatives to incarceration. Their deadline is Jan. 6.

    If Philadelphia’s strategy is chosen as one of the top 10 plans by the MacArthur Foundation, the city will receive up to $2 million annually to put the plan into action.

    The strategy could include options like community service and diversionary programs for non-violent offenders. It could include day centers and ankle bracelets for those awaiting trial. But most importantly, it could, and should, include innovation.

    If we put the same level of energy into keeping people out of prison that we used to put them inside, our proposal should stand head and shoulders above the rest. If that happens, we won’t need a new prison, because the foundation will give us up to $2 million annually to put the plan into action.

    Then our leaders can do what the people have demanded. They can finally put books before bars.

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