Panel Discussion on Race and Criminal Justice

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, several Jewish organizations sponsored a panel discussion on minorities and the criminal justice system. The sponsoring organizations included the Philadelphia Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN), Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), and the National Council of Jewish Women, Philadelphia Chapter (NCJW).

Abbey Frank, associate director of JCRC, introduced the panel: Nyssa Taylor, Criminal Justice Policy Council, American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania; Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender, Defenders Association of Philadelphia; and State Rep. Jordan Harris.

Frank welcomed the attendees, some of whom took part in community service projects in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “I’m thrilled that we’re here tonight, to mark his memory in a different way and talk about a really important subject: race in the criminal justice system.” One concern of JCRC, said Frank, has been “the vast increase in the U.S. prison population over the past 40 years, and the racial disparities in our criminal justice system.”

She explained that the U.S. has the largest criminal justice system in the world and provided the audience with the following statistics:

One out of 10 black men in their 30s is in prison or in jail on any given day in our country. Black Americans are more likely to serve longer sentences than white Americans for the same offense, and despite long-term declines in youth incarceration, African American youth are five times as likely as white youth to be detained or committed to youth facilities.

She added that in Pennsylvania, “48% of people who are incarcerated are black, 30% Hispanic, 15% American Indian, and 5% white.” According to Frank, one of JCRC’s goals “is to work with congressional delegations and our state representatives to advocate for policies that will work against these injustices.”

She then asked members of the panel for their perspectives on the criminal justice system and the impact race has on it.

Nyssa Taylor said:

It is a huge question, and there is really no one criminal justice system. We often talk about it like it is a monolithic entity, but in fact, it is statewide, it is local, it is county, it’s police, prosecutors, it’s probation and parole departments. I think that decentralization is part of what makes reform so complicated, and the fact that a lot of reform has to happen at a very local level. Statewide, nationwide,we are facing a severe crisis of mass incarceration. We have 5% of the world’s population, and we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. We incarcerate more people per capita than Turkmenistan, than Cuba, than Russia, than El Salvador, than any other country in the world.

Taylor then turned her attention to Pennsylvania: “Pennsylvania has one of the worst racial disparity rates. If you are black in Pennsylvania, you are 8.9 times more likely to be incarcerated than if you are white.” She also provided a shocking statistic on Philadelphia: “Philadelphia comprises 12% of the state’s population, but yet Philadelphia citizens comprise 28% of the inmate population. We’re sending too many people to state prison, from Philadelphia alone.”

Keir Bradford-Grey said that Taylor “really hit the nail on the head” when she identified the multiple local entities that comprise the criminal justice system. Bradford-Grey also pointed out the uptick over the last decade in what is considered criminal behavior:

We bring so many more cases into our system that before we didn’t understand were crimes, and every day things are making their way into the Pennsylvania Crimes Code that criminalize behaviors that we would never think were possible. For instance, when I was a kid, there were things that I would do in school that I never thought I would be dragged out in handcuffs for. Now, certain immature behaviors are criminalized, and these children are brought into our juvenile justice system in record numbers. Sometimes it depends on the school — they have the right to arrest the child.

Pointedly, she added, “The punitive response is greater than the therapeutic response.”

Bradford-Grey then focused on the issue of dehumanization within the criminal justice system and the factors that feed it:

With all those things, and all those zero-tolerance policies feeding our criminal justice system, we have become an overburdened and processed type of system, where humanizing does not happen very often. … Bias runs rampant because people don’t understand human capital, and what they do is dehumanize and desensitize the fact that they are dealing with another human being.

She added that 80% of people arrested cannot afford a lawyer. The public defenders’ offices do not have sufficient resources, and according to Bradford-Grey, “that makes the ability to humanize, the ability to really understand the person in the system more difficult.”

Referring to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Rep. Jordan Harris said, “I think it’s befitting that this conversation happens today.” He commended people who performed community service for the holiday, but described it as “the first step.” He said that “these conversations are leading us closer to what I believe the dream was about, about social activism and social justice.” The reforming of the criminal justice system, said Harris, is “probably one of the top social justice issues that anyone can be involved in in this day and time.”

Harris agreed with Bradford-Grey’s point about the impact of increased criminalization. He said that the legislature continues to define new crimes under the incorrect mindset that being “tough on crime” translates into safety, but it doesn’t. Harris also identified “over-policing of certain types of neighborhoods” as another cause of our bloated criminal justice system.

Then, he launched into a discussion on the impact of education as a factor affecting the criminal justice system:

People don’t understand that when you go into prison and you see 80% of the folks not have high school diplomas, one of the ways to cut down on the prison population is probably to get people high school diplomas. It’s one of the major indicators of whether folks will commit crimes.

Harris considers conversations like this panel discussion “encouraging” and mentioned that some strides were also being made in the General Assembly. However, he cautioned, “This is not going to change because black people talk about it. It’s going to happen because there’s going to be different communities of color, of economy, talking about this issue, and how it affects all of us.”

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