Lawmakers, community members gather for criminal justice roundtable
Members of the state Legislature recently joined community members at Life Church at St. Paul’s, Allentown, for a roundtable on criminal justice reform.
State Reps. Michael Schlossberg, D-132nd, and Peter Schweyer, D-22nd, were joined by House Minority Whip Jordan Harris, D-186th, for the discussion.
Schlossberg described the gathering as an opportunity to “shut up and listen.”
“We’re here to hear your thoughts and get some ideas for further actions,” he said.
Harris called criminal justice reform “the civil rights issue of our time.”
He said fixing the system could address many social ills within communities.
“The justice system, or the ‘injust’ system at times has created, in many instances, a permanent underclass of people who find themselves ineligible for education, ineligible for housing, and ineligible to move their lives along with regard to how they become gainfully employed,” Harris said.
He added people who have served their time must have the means to reintegrate into society.
“Anything else is turning them, not from taxpayer, but just to a lifelong tax burden,” Harris said. “If we do this the right way, I believe we can break the generational cycle of incarceration that typically leads to a generational cycle of poverty.”
Schweyer then added his comments to the discussion.
“[One challenge facing legislators] is a really inappropriate perspective that criminal justice reform and issues surrounding crime are only a Philadelphia problem,” Schweyer said, adding Allentown is the third largest city in Pennsylvania.
He said community discussions help lawmakers on issues from economic development to education inequity.
“When it comes to criminal justice reform and police reform, the conversations are bigger than just what’s happening in Philadelphia and a little bit of what’s happening in Harrisburg,” Schweyer said.
Pastor Daniel Blount of Union Baptist Church, one of Allentown’s oldest Black churches, said the criminal justice system was the “root problem” of many issues.
“We fall under the radar because people don’t care about those who have been incarcerated, done their time, did their probation, and they still aren’t treated like they are a human being. They’re still on an island,” Blount said.
He described how he had been incarcerated and came out with the drive to change his situation.
“[But] the reality is, most people don’t have it,” Blount said. “I think if we don’t change the culture of the judicial system, nothing is going to change.
“We’ll always be where we are because the judicial system put us there.”
Jessica Lee Ortiz, founder of the Ortiz Ark Foundation, said major criminal justice issues are due to laws surrounding “crimes of necessity, crimes of situation and circumstance.”
She reflected on her husband’s experience as a former drug dealer.
“He was taught when you want to make money and earn a living, this is the first step. That’s all he knew, and that’s not a life he got to choose to say, ‘I want.’”
Ortiz spoke about the negative impact having a criminal history can have on a person’s life, even after serving their sentence, earning degrees and making social changes.
“When is enough enough to say they are a reformed person. We’re going to allow them back?” she asked.
Schlossberg said legislative action was needed to change state marijuana laws, which he called “hugely problematic, and take up a lot of time and energy.”
Schweyer added his thoughts.
“Knowing all the stuff our police officers are doing, a lot of times they are the front face for bad policies we have enacted,” he said, adding it is the legislators’ responsibility to ensure laws are good and just, and to make changes.
Harris said mental shifts are needed to view the criminal justice system as “prison being for folks who are dangerous in our community and not just folks we’re mad at.”
He noted many laws incarcerate individuals who are victims of circumstance and not dangers to society.
Harris also discussed the 2018 Clean Slate Act which provided ways for people with second, third and some first-degree nonviolent misdemeanors to have their records sealed.
The law affected 1.1 million Pennsylvanians and sealed more than 35 million records in its first year.
Harris said the law needed to extend to felonies, particularly drug felonies.
“One of the things that hinders a lot of our brothers and sisters is they have felonies from 10, 15, 20 years ago,” he said, adding felonies prevent individuals from accessing public housing, school grants and employment in certain industries.
Dr. Hasshan Batts, executive director of Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, said while actions were being taken on the state level, more was needed at the local level.
Batts said locally, residents have established relationships and organizations but lack the power to make more impactful policies and changes.
He said empowerment needs to “hyper-localize, where there are boards, commissions … true criminal justice reform groups that are moving forward policies,” and forming discussion groups and coalitions with lawmakers.
Allentown resident José Rivera spoke of his experiences in the prison system and the lack of education and learning opportunities.
“You name them institutions but there’s no type of learning in there,” he said.
Rivera spoke of the time when the Department of Corrections was defunded.
“There was no more trades, no more real schooling up in there,” Rivera said. “You want to blame the person coming out of jail that we didn’t change, when we weren’t given an opportunity to change.”
Lehigh County Judges Douglas Reichley and Michael D’Amore provided a judicial perspective to criminal justice reform on the local level.
Reichley said the county is at its lowest level of prison population in 20 years.
This he attributed to efforts through the district attorney’s office to have people released who are close to their minimum or have nonviolent offenses.
Reichley also noted the county recently established an e-pay bail system for people to pay up to $20,000 in bail by credit card.
In addition, he said a new county drug treatment court will open in the near future.
D’Amore said while restrictions prevent judges from lobbying or advocating on certain issues, he and Reichley encouraged lawmakers to contact judges to get a “real-world” perspective on the impact of proposed actions.
“We can be an informative resource on what we’re seeing in real time,” Reichley said.
Allentown School District representative Phoebe Harris spoke about education improvements, noting her district needs more money for transportation.
“We are a walking district. A lot of things happen,” she said, noting bus transportation could stop or greatly lessen criminal activity.
She also spoke about school infractions.
“What happens to our kids when they get in trouble?” she asked, noting black students make up just 14 percent of the district population but 80 percent of infractions.
“Something’s wrong here,” she said.
In closing, Allentown Police Chief Glenn Granitz Jr. addressed the gathering.
“[The roundtable] is kind of a breath of fresh air. There’s been a lot of negativity, and rightfully so in many cases.”
Granitz agreed with attendees on many of the subjects discussed and he liked “where this conversation was going.”
He also made a request of Schlossberg, Harris and Schweyer.
“At some point in one of these reform measures, is give us as a community … some ability to work maybe with higher-ed, some community engagement center, and create a data-driven assessment of what are the things we’re trying to do.
“Where should we put more funding? Where should we put more emphasis? And, how do we get that from a respected party that everyone can say ‘Yeah, that data makes sense,’” Granitz said.