PHILADELPHIA — It couldn’t possibly have been a coincidence.
Philadelphia city officials, a 76ers co-owner, a famous rapper, a TV host, and several activist organizations gathered Tuesday afternoon to announce a collective effort to reform Pennsylvania’s parole and probation system.
The event took place in Thomas Paine Plaza, just a few feet away from the statue honoring Philly’s notorious former Mayor Frank Rizzo, which appropriately had its head turned away from the ceremony.
Two state representatives who have emerged as unlikely allies on criminal justice reform — Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, and Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland — announced they will soon introduce legislation aimed toward preventing those on probation and parole from being sent back to prison for non-violent or technical violations. That would include associating with someone with a criminal history, traveling outside one’s jurisdiction, and testing positive for marijuana.
“I’ve been blessed to work with leaders on both sides of the aisle when it comes to criminal justice reform,” Harris said as he revealed the impending introduction of House Bill 1925.
“This bipartisan piece of legislation aims to change a system that has far too long has held many of our citizens back,” he continued. “For far too long, probation has been as the quicksand of the criminal justice system. The moment you get in it’s hard to get out and the harder you try to get out, the more it pulls you back in.”
Sens. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, and Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, have already introduced companion legislation in the Senate.
CNN commentator Van Jones led the news conference. Jones is the CEO of Reform Alliance, an organization dedicated to “dramatically reduc[ing] the number of people who are unjustly under the control of the criminal justice system.”
A former Obama administration official, Jones helped lead a national prison reform effort alongside President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, and White House aide, Jared Kushner. The First Step Act aims to improve conditions in prisons by eliminating notorious practices like restraining pregnant women and providing additional training for corrections officials. On Monday, Jones received personal praise from the president for his work.
“Breakdowns can become breakthroughs if you use them right,” Jones proclaimed. “Change has got to come.”
— PA House Democrats (@PaHouseDems) April 2, 2019
The crowd that formed in front of City Hall, however, was drawn to a brighter and more local star.
Rapper Meek Mill, a Philadelphia native and best-selling recording artist, became a national symbol for sentencing reform after he was sent back to prison in 2017 for a parole violation. Several celebrities, business leaders, and members of the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles rallied to his cause. Mill was eventually released.
“I always say I speak for the people that don’t have a voice,” Mill began to cheers from those gathered. “I hate that it had to be me to go to jail, a rapper or a public figure to go to jail, for it to become an issue. But it is an issue.”
He went on to describe how difficult it was to explain to his son why he faced a return to prison during the child’s formative years.
“My son came to see me and asked what I was arrested for and I had to tell him, popping a wheelie,” Mill related. “He could never understand it.”
The Tuesday gathering was bipartisan, as members of the Koch Brothers vehicle Americans for Posterity rubbed elbows with those from the ACLU.
But Pennsylvania has been able to push through significant reform, thanks to that cooperation. Last year, Harris and Delozier shepherded the state’s clean slate program into law, allowing for automatic record sealing for certain non-violent offenses.
Other legislators in attendance included Reps. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny, Mike Jones, R-York, and Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland.
“The toughest thing to do right now is to reach across the aisle,” Jones asserted. “When we have leaders who are to put the people first and are willing to say ‘I don’t care about right versus left, I care about right versus wrong,’ those leaders deserve to be heard.”
Nick Field, of Bucks County, is a former managing editor of PoliticsPA. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star.