Taking on Mass Incarceration in Philadelphia

Photo by aps_studio

In May of 2017, Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting approved a minute on mass incarceration, including the following language:

Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting goes on public record in opposition to mass incarceration, as one step in taking it as seriously as we would have taken slavery. We are clear as a body that this is a violent, unjust, racist system, one that runs contrary to our most deeply held beliefs, and one that must be challenged with all the resources we can bring to bear.

Having committed ourselves to such a public declaration, we commit to supporting each other to discern the variety of actions that we are called to—individually, in our Quaker meeting, and as a wider community.

In the years that followed, several Friends in the meeting searched actively for a way to make this commitment visible: We attended neighborhood town halls, went to witness bail hearings and a hearing on sentencing reform, and worked with a local interfaith justice group’s Live Free committee (Live Free is a campaign of the national network Faith in Action to end gun violence and mass incarceration in the United States). Along with Live Free, our clerk helped organize a well-attended public event at Friends Center that included Friends from throughout our quarter, Philadelphia’s chief public defender, representatives from a community bail fund, and other players in the local movement to end cash bail.

In the process we learned that cash bail is the leading cause of the mass incarceration crisis in the United States, and that our country has more people—over half a million—detained pretrial than most countries have in their jails and prisons combined. While many jurisdictions have moved to eradicate cash bail, Philadelphia’s system continues, with a pretrial length of stay that is over three times the national average, and the highest incarceration rate of any large jurisdiction in the country, despite significant reductions in the last five years.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2020, seven members of our meeting community attended a big public teach-in on cash bail. Following that event, four of us felt called to follow up, searching intently for the best role for Philadelphia Quakers in witnessing against mass incarceration. We met with a member of Philadelphia City Council who had spoken at the teach-in, and with a newly appointed outreach staffer at the District Attorney’s Office. With strong progressive voices on mass incarceration in both Philadelphia’s new district attorney and city council, including a sustained internal push for reform, it was becoming clear that the major obstacle to change was in the judicial branch. With a sense of getting close, the four of us were preparing our next step with the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania (composed of two courts that make up the Philadelphia County Court System: the Court of Common Pleas and Municipal Court) when the pandemic hit and everything ground to a halt.

Finally, after all these months, we are beginning to pick up the thread of this concern. We are planning for a series of online teach-ins—for our meeting and the wider community—about Pennsylvania’s First Judicial District (FJD). Starting with a session on the background and history of the FJD, we will go on to consider how the two courts contribute to mass incarceration, and conclude with a session on policy solutions and potential for action to bring them into right relationship with justice. Other cities, for example, have active court-watch programs that we can learn from. These teach-ins will lead up to the November municipal election, where judicial candidates will have the primary place on the ballot.

We are excited about this opportunity to educate ourselves and others on the role of the judiciary in the mass incarceration crisis and to build relationships with like-minded community organizations and individuals. We see the potential to identify promising policy solutions and ways to take action to influence judicial practices and move toward more fully claiming our own role in the movement against mass incarceration. We are extremely fortunate that one member of our group has deep experience in the city’s public defender office and is willing and able to lead the effort of inviting resource people and managing the teach-in series, and to help guide our next steps.

At our June meeting for business, Central Philadelphia Friends were enthusiastic in giving their blessing to this plan. It was clear that the body is longing for a way to be more fully engaged. It is a blessing to have this opportunity to breathe new life into our meeting’s corporate commitment to respond to the great evil of mass incarceration.

Pamela Haines

Pamela Haines, a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, works supporting young children, has a passion for the earth and economic integrity, loves repair of all kinds, and writes widely. Her latest publications are Money and Soul, That Clear and Certain Sound, and a volume of poetry, Alive in This World.

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