Political activists and community members joined Matthew Charles at the University of Pennsylvania on Oct. 9 to discuss criminal justice reform on a national and local level. Charles spoke about his personal experience with prison sentencing and the First Step Act, and allowed local candidates, advocates from Washington, D.C., and students to ask questions.
“For the longest time, it was incarcerate, incarcerate, incarcerate,” Charles said. “It’s funny because when I was incarcerated, the only avenue that the government utilized was incapacitation — to take me away from the street for a significant amount of time, then release me when I had changed to be back in society.”
In 1996, Charles was convicted on a 35 year sentence for selling 216 grams of crack cocaine and possessing an illegal firearm.
During his 21 years in prison, Charles did not receive one disciplinary infraction. Instead, he tutored GED classes, took college courses, and became a law clerk.
Charles applied for sentence modification and due to his record was released in 2016.
“Incapacitation has changed back to rehabilitation,” Charles said. “And because of that we are able to say, ‘If this person can be rehabilitated, he should be able to not have to serve 21 years for a nonviolent offense.’ He should be able to have his sentence looked at and serve a portion of it.”
After starting a family and getting involved in the community, the court deemed his 2016 release an error and he returned to jail in 2018. In 2019, he was released through sentencing reforms in the First Step Act.
Anderson emphasized the distinction between federal reforms such as the First Step Act and state level changes.
“There are about 2.2 million people incarcerated across our whole country, but only about 150,000 of them are held in federal prison facilities,” said Anderson. “That’s why the push for criminal justice reform started at the state level, because they have large prison populations themselves.”
In a state of approximately 12.8 million people, Pennsylvania holds almost 48,000 prisoners. Forty-four percent of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) institutions were above capacity in September 2019. In previous years, the Pennsylvania DOC has sent inmates to other state prison systems in order to maintain the load.
In a statement on probation reform, Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) noted that, “Pennsylvania has seen its prison population increase by approximately 850% over the past 40 years at a cost of $2.4 billion per year to taxpayers.”
During his talk, Charles discussed how the First Step Act personally affected him and how new legislative changes could further improve the system.
One of the suggested changes is fair chance hiring. Fair chance hiring is generally known as “banning the box.” Fair chance hiring and banning the box removes questions about criminal background on job applications.
Anderson said over 30 states and 150 cities and localities have passed this kind of legislation. Pennsylvania and Philadelphia are both included on that list.
In May 2017, Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation which removed the criminal conviction question from applications for non-civil service positions in agencies under his control.
Due to fair chance hiring law, it is illegal for an employer in Philadelphia to ask an individual about their criminal background on an application or interview. Employers are only allowed to run a criminal-background check after a conditional offer is given.
According to the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, criminal convictions can only be considered “if they occurred less than 7 years from when you apply,” but that does not include time served. Arrests which do not result in conviction can have no bearing on job offers.
The commission maintains employers can reject applications only if an individual is deemed to be an “unacceptable risk to the business or other people.”
Charles said he hopes this kind of policy is instituted nationwide.
Major companies such as Facebook, Starbucks, Target, and Walmart do not ask about criminal records on job applications.
Maj Toure, a libertarian candidate for city council-at-large, attended the event. His campaign platform focuses largely on criminal justice reform efforts such as fair chance hiring, elimination of solitary confinement, and reevaluation of drug charges.
Toure believes by bringing individuals with marijuana charges out of jail and providing them jobs, the economy will improve.
“That’s a boom to the economy,” Toure said. “That’s a boom to a man who feels like he can’t find gainful employment because he got this felony on his jacket. We’re talking about for nonviolent offenses. We’re talking about possession of a dried flower.”
A report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) estimates that 70 million U.S. adults have a criminal record that hinders their job opportunities. NELP research also shows the likelihood of a job offer or call back is reduced by 50% when an individual has a criminal record.
The report also estimates the United States economy loses $78 to $87 billion per year due to the reduced output of goods and services of people with prison records and felonies.
Charles emphasized the importance of acquiring a job and housing in reducing recidivism rates. He noted his struggle to find housing post release, which resulted in homelessness.
He also mentioned his belief that all reforms should be retroactive. A lack of retroactive legislation was one of the reasons Charles’ sentence was not shortened.
In addition to these ideas, Anderson said Pennsylvania is an innovator in criminal justice reform due to its Clean Slate legislation, which is the first in the nation.
The Clean Slate Act allows for the sealing of criminal records for certain misdemeanors after being conviction free for a decade. Misdemeanors of the first degree that endangered a person, involved firearms, included sexual offenses and/or attempted any of these offenses are not included.
Whether the seal is automatic or requires a petition to the court depends on the level of misdemeanor. After its passage, the law required 30 million cases automatically sealed.
The act allows individuals to apply for jobs without worry of more minor crimes appearing on a background check.
Anderson said this Pennsylvania legislation inspired a federal version in the House of Representatives with a bipartisan group of co-sponsors, including Rep. Guy Reschenthaler who was a state senator at the time.
Some local advocates like Toure, believe efforts by the current political system aren’t enough.
“[Politicians] are making a lot of legislation that they don’t fully understand,” Toure said. “I get why, it’s because they want Philadelphians or Americans to be safe. But if you do that just from that perspective without the information, you might be trampling on rights and promoting legislation that actually doesn’t make Philadelphians any safer.”
Toure is mostly concerned by sentencing encroaching on rights of individuals in the city long term.
“We’re giving these people, these Americans, criminal charges,” Toure said. “A lot of times felony charges which violate their other abilities and human rights, their ability to vote and express themselves, their ability to defend themselves.”
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