by Kevin Dicciani
Last week Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney spoke at the Commonwealth Chateau at Sugarloaf for a conference on criminal justice reform, stating the city has made great strides in addressing inequalities in the courts and society at large.
“We are keenly aware of the moral crisis in America, mass incarceration, mass supervision, and the disproportionate impact both have had on people of color,” Kenney said at the “Transforming Justice Conference,” held on Nov. 15 on Chestnut Hill College’s Sugarloaf campus. “We've made great strides on several fronts, and we've done so because we've worked collaboratively with our partners and with the community.”
Since taking office in 2015, Kenney said the city has been committed to ensuring the criminal justice system works fairly for everyone. He said his office has reduced reliance on cash bail for the incarceration of pretrial defendants and established detainer alternatives for violations of probation, such as providing treatment for people struggling with substance abuse issues and mental illness. Because of these efforts, he continued, his office has been able to reduce the Philadelphia prison population by more than 40 percent in the last four years.
Additionally, Kenney’s office recently created the Office of Reentry Partnerships, which is responsible for developing strategies that seek to improve outcomes for citizens following incarceration.
“Our goal was to increase access to resources such as job training, housing, and health services so that returning citizens can not only survive, but thrive,” he said.
Kenney added that reducing recidivism can be achieved while still maintaining public safety.
“It is simply not accurate to say that reducing the prison population and fixing the broken parts of the system will take away from our ability to keep people safe,” he said. “To the contrary, we have shown that both are possible and necessary.”
Kenney assured the audience of more than 200 people that his office will continue working every day to change lives for the better.
“Make no mistake, our administration will not stop focusing on our efforts on reform,” he said. “It is a primary focus of the second term, and we will leave a healthy baton of progress to be passed on to the next generation.”
Other elected officials and prominent figures who participated in the event were District Attorney Larry Krasner, State Reps. Chris Rabb, Joanna McClinton, Jordan Harris, and Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries and liaison to the White House. Human rights advocates, social workers, court officials, police officers, educators, and medical professionals, to name a few, also participated in the conference.
At the event, College President Carol Jean Vale, SSJ, Ph.D., said she hoped the conference would “deepen our understanding of justice and our commitment to seek new solutions to the very real challenges that plague our current approach to crime and punishment to victims and the community.”
“For prisoners, life behind bars is an experiment in survival, an endurance test that harms the psyche and bruises the soul,” Sister Carol said. “I have learned of other systems of incarceration in the world where prisoners lose their freedom, but not their human dignity, places where prisoners are rehabilitated and reintroduced into society more whole than when they entered the system.
“Today we will be responding to new insights about processes that hold the potential for reconciliation and healing for both offender and victim, processes that can restore right relationships, thereby bettering the communities in which we live.”
The conference was the result of a partnership between the College and Uplift Solutions, a nonprofit organization whose work includes supporting food businesses, local governments, and nonprofits in creating sustainable access to fresh and healthy food. The organization also runs a re-entry workforce program, which is a supermarket-based, on-the-job training program designed to create second-chance employment opportunities for re-entering citizens.
The College has established numerous initiatives, groups, and academic programs in recent years to promote ways of living that are alternative to the culture of violence, division, and retaliation. The Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation, a co-sponsor of the event, was created to foster a philosophy wherein “oneness overcomes divisions, where grudges and wrongs give way to forgiveness and reparation, and people suffering from broken relationships walk the road to reconciliation together.” As part of that vision, the College added to its curriculum a restorative justice minor, which explores via research and scholarship the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and communities.
Catherine Nerney, SSJ, Ph.D., the director of the Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation and an associate professor of religious studies at the College, said that while forgiveness neither eclipses justice nor eliminates accountability, it can potentially lead to redemption for the offender.
“Holding people accountable for their actions is a first step in restoring their humanity and the only way to show them the dignity of choice that is their human birthright,” Sister Catherine said.
In her closing remarks, Sister Carol emphasized the importance of the conference, calling it “a conversation that matters.”
“By coming to understand the experience of the victims owning the harm that was inflicted and agreeing to a path to healing that has positive benefits for the offender, the victim, and the community, there is genuine hope that offenders can be motivated to start life afresh and victims can integrate pain in a manner that opens them to healing and growth,” she said.