Will Justice Reform Survive Washington’s ‘Tough on Crime’ Policies?

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Photo by Victoria Mckenzie/TCR

Philadelphia has been a focal point of U.S. justice debate in the past several years, with attention centered on court reforms. One of the leading reform voices has been Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, an independent, nonprofit corporation which has represented indigent criminal defendants since 1934. Bradford-Grey was in New York this week to speak at a conference to introduce journalists to Measures for Justice, a free data portal launched in May aimed at collecting statistical information on the justice system at the county level. Data is now available from 300 countries in six states, with more expected in coming years.

In a chat with TCR editor Stephen Handelman, Bradford-Grey explained why data remains a critical tool for understanding how the justice reform operates at the grassroots level, and why she believes the bipartisan reform movement will continue despite the revival of “tough-on-crime” rhetoric by the current administration.

The Crime Report: Over the last few years there has been a bipartisan movement on justice reform that has gradually abandoned the old “tough on crime” metric. Do you see evidence of that in Philadelphia?

Keir Bradford-Grey:  Yes, there are incremental changes that I see every day. It has became politically popular to talk about changing the way we do things in the criminal justice system, [and it is now ] a household discussion about how the criminal justice system exacerbates issues, that nothing really changed, everything stayed the same. We talked about reform, but the practices and the policies generally stayed the same. We would pick out outliers in our system and place them in a diversion program, say we were working on reform, where 90% of the people in the system were still going through the same types of systems.

So it is really helpful that these discussions are taking place, that we are being more data-driven, more policy-driven, more research-driven. And it does help when it comes to the political forces that are trying to become re-elected, like the DAs, the mayor, all those people who are responsible for making sure that our justice system is doing what it is supposed to be doing. It creates a better platform.

TCR: Do you see the results on the street level? Do you see more public safety, more understanding, and less of a tough on crime mentality? Is it showing itself in more public safety?

KBG: That is a really good question, and that is something I think we have yet to understand. What does contribute to public safety? Every day, we see violent crime being touted on the news, but we don’t know what’s happening to those who are in our systems, or were in our system, or no longer are in our systems, who are charged with non-violent offenses.

Are they better off by leaving them alone? Or are they better off by bringing them into contact with the criminal justice system and giving them diversionary services? These are the things that I have yet to understand, and I would love for someone to do research around that.

TCR: Justice in this country is done at the retail level, whatever the feds will say, or what they’d like to see. But there’s now an overall political climate, where it’s being suggested that things are worse rather than better, that we need to be tough on crime again. Are you seeing manifestations of that in Philadelphia?

KBG:  Various jurisdictions in Pennsylvania do see that. There are people trying to pull back on the problem-solving courts, saying that we still have recidivism; so why put so much effort into problem-solving courts. And you know, problem-solving courts look at the case and the individual, and put a lot of wrap-around services for that person to go through over a period of years.

One factor influencing (the revival of tough on crime rhetoric) is the fact that people attribute certain costs associated with helping those who are more vulnerable in our society as a waste of money. Of course you can say we were doing just that by locking them up in jail without them having a real chance of rehabilitating. But that rhetoric has been moving up in some areas in Pennsylvania. Not necessarily in Philadelphia, where we have a higher urban area and understand social issues. But you can see that in areas where crime is looked at as a drain on society, and (the public) would much rather spend the money locking people up rather than giving them the tools that they need to actually rehabilitate.

TCR: But cities and towns, and state legislatures can resist. We’re seeing some evidence of pushback to the new climate in places like Wisconsin, Missouri and California for example.

KBG: Yes, that’s encouraging, especially in the larger cities, who kind of reject (President) Trump’s policies in terms of criminal justice issues– or I should say, the policies of our new Attorney General. I think what’s been happening in those cities is that a lot of work has been done by policy groups, social justice organizations, and civil rights organizations, to really show the effect of what we’re doing in our justice system. And people have taken that, and used it as more of a political platform and tools to become re-elected. So these things will stay. When you have smaller, more rural areas, that’s not the discussion.

TCR: In the area where you specialize, are we seeing real progress in fulfilling the constitutional right to defense, particularly among people who don’t have the money to pay for it?

KBG: Well, I honestly think we can do a lot more, but we are moving the needle. So I can always applaud progress

TCR: How do you measure progress?

KBG:  Narrowing the net of the justice system. If we’re looking at offenses or actions in the appropriate light, in making sure that we’re not doing one thing to one group of individuals that we are not willing to do to another. We see it with the heroin and opioid epidemic: a lot of funding, a lot of money has gone to not putting those people in custody, and not arresting them, but diverting them directly to treatment and giving them opportunities to relapse, or whatever—to crawl out of these habits. When we don’t see that for another segment of society, that’s when i think we need a lot more in the area of reform, because it’s not that we’re saying that these people are going to create an extreme danger to our communities; we’re just saying that we’d rather handle them this way– and that way has a generational effect. It will never overcome that poverty cycle.

This is an abridged and slightly edited version of a video interview conducted by Stephen Handelman, executive editor of The Crime Report. The Measures for Justice conference for journalists mentioned above was organized by John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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