Mayor Jim Kenney, left, Cherri Gregg and Glenn E. Martin

— Photo by Shawn Rivers Photography

Of the 2,000 juveniles serving life sentences around the United States, 500 come from Pennsylvania and 300 come directly from here. That means the city has produced 15 percent of the country’s so-called “juvenile-lifers.”

The Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project (YSRP) is working to change that.

On Wednesday evening, YSRP held an event called “The State of Criminal Justice & Reentry in Philadelphia: Opportunities for Innovation & Reform.”

Featuring two panels of criminal justice experts and government officials, the event brought together stake holders in the area of criminal justice reform to explore what’s being done—and what can be done—to improve the system.

Executive Director of Frontline Dads Reuben Jones moderated the first panel, which featured Executive Deputy Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Shirley Moore Smeal, American Civil Liberties Union Campaign For Smart Justice Deputy Director William Cobb, Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services (R.I.S.E.) Executive Director Ceciley Bradford-Jones and YSRP Co-Director Joanna Visser Adjoian.

Event attendees ranged from social justice advocates to the formerly incarcerated, from criminal defense attorneys to foundation partners.

“Reentry is a hot topic, so we have a saturated market doing the work but that’s not necessarily effective to bring about the most change,” Bradford-Jones said in response to the first topic about the biggest concern in criminal justice reform.

Today’s biggest criminal justice reform barrier, over saturation around the issue of reentry, sharply contrasts the biggest reform concern 15 years ago which was too little focus on reentry.

For prisons, “really trying to make sure that we have a smooth hand-off from the Department of Corrections back into the community,” is their largest issue. Panelists pointed to a lack of jobs, specifically a lack of employers willing to hire formerly incarcerated people at a livable wage, and lack of stable, long-term housing.

And even today the amount of money given to reentry efforts is “paltry” compared to Philadelphia’s corrections budget Cobb said.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections budget for fiscal 2016 was $2.37 billion said corrections department spokesperson Amy Worden.

However, Smeal spoke of the $101 million cuts to the department proposed by the House GOP state budget. Gov. Wolf also proposed a $32 million cut to the department for the upcoming fiscal year.

Smeal said the department has an emphasis on re-entry, and acknowledged the need to work with community groups who are already doing the work.

That’s part of the philosophy of featured guest Glenn E. Martin. Martin is founder of JustLeadershipUSA, which aims to halve the country’s prison population by 2030, and the #CLOSErikers Campaign which helped secure a promise from New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio to work toward closing the city’s notorious jail system Rikers Island. The activist, who served six years in Rikers for armed robbery, says that his time in prison taught him “that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”

“People tend to point to me as the exception,” Martin said. “And the truth is I’ve been exposed to exceptional opportunities.”

Echoing ideas from previous panelists and formerly incarcerated event attendees who spoke about the need for dignifying, well-paid jobs, Martin said the opportunities he was afforded after prison were intentionally not “infantilizing.”

Martin worked in reentry following his incarceration and eventually rose to the position of vice president at The Fortune Society, a reentry organization, before founding his own.

During Martin’s more conversational panel with Mayor Jim Kenney and moderated by CBS3’s Cherri Gregg, he called for more aggressive action from government, advocates and fundraisers.

After Martin detailed his group’s work to help shut down Rikers, Kenney said, “It’s an aspirational goal to close the [Philadelphia] House of Correction.”

To pull it off, the city would have to reduce its prison population from where it is now at about 6,600 (down from 8,000 in January 2015) to about 4,000.

“We want to be an example of reentry,” Kenney said.

Martin charged Kenney to do just that.

“People are looking to you to step up, to do more, to speak truth to power and to leave a legacy that matches the platform they elected you for,” he said. (215) 893-5745

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