Pennsylvanians Find Common Ground in Urban-Rural Justice Challenges

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Photo by Michael Coghlan via Flickr

In what organizers called an attempt to bridge the urban-rural divide in criminal justice, community members and justice professionals from Philadelphia and a rural Pennsylvania county discovered common ground on the challenges of ending mass incarceration.

Meeting over six days last Fall, the 27 participants in the program, funded  by the Vera Institute of Justice, compared notes on reform ideas ranging from reducing jail commissary prices to curtailing the use of pretrial detention.

They agreed to support a statewide campaign to end the detention of youth in adult facilities.

“In a moment in which disinformation and half-truths have currency, this was a powerful opportunity to deeply engage community members and policy makers with the often-shocking facts about their criminal legal systems,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, one of the co-sponsors of the program, in a statement released this week.

“Armed with this solid understanding, reform is happening.”

The participants were described as having “political views across the ideological spectrum” and included reform advocates, students, retirees and professionals.

Joseph Bubman, executive director of Urban Rural Action, the other co-sponsor, said the program should be “replicated across the country to address mass incarceration and other issues that impact all communities.”

He added, according to a press release accompanying the announcement, that “collaboration among ordinary people from different types of communities can help transform the divisiveness that plagues our country into local action that builds relationships and addresses real challenges.”

The so-called “Consensus-Building for Incarceration” (CBIR) program was funded through one of Vera’s 11 “In Our Backyards” community grants aimed at promoting research and public education around reducing mass incarceration in small cities and rural communities.

The participants met alternatively at locations in Philadelphia and Gettysburg, in rural Adams County, Pa., during September and October last year. Afterwards, some 74 percent agreed the encounter had “substantial value” for advancing justice reforms.

During the program they heard from public officials as well as incarcerees during a tour of a correctional facility, but just as significantly, program organizers said, they learned “from each other’s perspectives and experiences” with the criminal justice system.

“When people think about mass incarceration, they typically believe it’s an urban problem,” said Sarah Minion, campaign associate for Vera’s In Our Backyards initiative.

“We know, however, that small and rural communities across the country are driving growth in both jails and prisons.

“It’s exciting to see people from vastly different places within the same state say ‘we have a lot to learn from each other,’ and then come together to affirm that we can’t end mass incarceration unless we do so in every community, and that consensus around what that might look like is achievable.”

Additional reading: See also TCR’s resource page on “Rural (In)Justice”

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