Philadelphia DA Urges Students to Help End Mass Incarceration
By: Nick Santangelo
Citizens are innocent until proven guilty—or at least they should be. In reality, accused individuals are sometimes treated as guilty until proven innocent. Further, those who are proven guilty are branded so for life, while those guilty of crimes they weren’t caught or convicted for are branded innocent for life.
This was the backdrop for a panel on criminal justice reform organized by the Political Science Honor Society, Pi Sigma Alpha, which is co-chaired by seniors Maha Ouni and Conor Freeley. The panel was held before a packed Gladfelter Hall auditorium last Wednesday evening and featured Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society Claire Shubik-Richards and Tyrone Werts, a formerly incarcerated individual who helped develop Temple University’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.
Before the panelists spoke, however, the event with a showing of a short documentary, Guilty Until Proven Innocent, created by Temple POWER interns to highlight the troubles with Philadelphia’s cash bail system. The system often mandates expensive bond payments from accused parties who lack the means to pay them. Accused people who may or may not even be guilty then end up with lengthy jail stays while awaiting trial. Eliminating cash bail, along with addressing police misconduct and ending mass incarceration, was part of Krasner’s 2017 campaign platform.
Speaking after the film showing, Krasner made the case for how those problems are inequitably ruining people’s lives. He called becoming a felon is “a permanent condition” in society and noted that the world has a binary view of felons: “there are the felons, and then there are those of us who don’t do crimes.” The district attorney lambasted this as a false narrative, saying virtually everyone breaks the law in at least some small way over the course of their life. Further, Krasner added that “there is tremendous overlap” between perpetrators of crimes and victims of crimes.
“For a lot of people who do terrible things,” he said, “they are not the worst thing to ever happen to themselves.”
Here, the district attorney shared his own story of being victimized: some 15 years ago, two men attacked him outside his office, slashing his face with a razor blade. Krasner realized that just sending these men to prison wouldn’t really doing anything to rehabilitate them. Krasner believes a lack of access to quality education and social programs drives people to commit crimes like this. And once committed, the “felon” label criminals carry for life make it difficult for them to get jobs and avoid repeat offenses.
To this end, Tyrone Werts spoke of how manufacturing jobs leaving the U.S. during the 70s and 80s left many people who lacked a high-quality education out of work and out of options. More prisons were then built to address what Werts believes to be misplaced fears about and inefficient solutions to criminal activity.
“When there is fear in the atmosphere, you are willing to give up your rights,” said Werts. This atmosphere, he said, led to “tough-on-crime” politicians successfully pushing agendas for mass incarceration like the War on Drugs because “everybody hates crime, everybody hates people who commit crime.”
Claire Shubik-Richards said that while hating criminals may be easy, mass incarceration policies and labels like “superpredators” dehumanize them. To that end, Werts argued that prisoners are treated as though they’re slaves or property of the state, surrendering most of their rights and sometimes working for nothing or almost nothing. Shubik-Richards and Werts agreed, however, that the country is starting to realize why this is so problematic, allowing for nationwide support to end mass incarceration.
So, what can be done about it? Krasner implored CLA students to get to the polls on Election Day. He raised his voice for emphasis: “Are you registered?! Are you voting?! Are you crazy?!” His incredulous tone and expression played for laughs while also, hopefully, spurring students to action.
And because “there are more problems with the criminal justice system in Philadelphia than there are stars in the sky,” according to Shubik-Richards, every student can find a meaningful reform cause to fight for.
Voting is one way to accomplish as much, but Krasner also pleaded with students to carefully consider their career choices. He challenged them to be unafraid to chase careers that would change the world over those that would be immediately financially lucrative.
“Do what is in your heart, what will make you whole. And if you do that, you’re going to get a lot done.”