It Takes A Neighborhood: Expanding Community-Based Criminal Justice Reform

Expand Philly’s network of participatory defense hubs so that every member of the community has a voice in the courtroom.

For too long, communities directly impacted by mass incarceration have been left out of conversations about criminal justice reform. To develop solutions to the problems that plague our criminal justice system, we need to be hear from them. We know that individuals and organizations want to support their friends and loved ones entangled in the criminal justice system but they lack the knowledge necessary to make a difference.

The Defender Association is working to support community-based criminal justice reform through three initiatives: expanding our city’s network of participatory defense hubs that provide support to people accused of crimes and their friends and loved ones, forming a Pre-Entry Coalition of social service providers who can help a person deal with underlying behavioral issues, and holding Know Your Systems trainings to educate members of the community on the steps of the criminal justice process and where community involvement can make a difference.

What is the community need that this idea addresses?

Philadelphia’s criminal justice system currently relies on cash bail which punishes poverty and does nothing to improve public safety. Holding a person in jail before trial makes a person more likely to receive a criminal conviction, which comes with lifelong consequences – for the individual and the community. The voices of communities directly impacted by cash bail and pretrial incarceration have been ignored for far too long, making people feel as if they have no control over what happens in the criminal justice system. Participatory Defense gives communities a voice in the criminal justice system, by humanizing individuals accused of crimes.

Participatory Defense hubs create a forum for community participation in the justice system and a support structure for those facing charges. Community organizations offering Pre-Entry support can help address a person’s underlying challenges to avoid unnecessary incarceration.

What is the solution that is currently in place?

Philadelphia’s four active participatory defense hubs open their doors to anyone impacted by the criminal justice system at weekly meetings across the city, including the first hub in the nation dedicated to children and families who are navigating the justice system. At hub meetings, community facilitators provide valuable information about the justice process, and how people can best advocate for themselves and their loved ones. Hub facilitators and volunteers explain how cases move through court, remind people about upcoming court dates, and provide referrals to social services that support better case outcomes.

The Pre-Entry Coalition offers individuals job training, treatment for addiction and mental health issues, and other supports that allow them to improve their lives at the front end of the criminal justice process. When community groups intervene immediately following a person’s arrest, they can disrupt what has been characterized as “assembly line justice,” which drives mass incarceration.

How will a Key to Community Grant help?

A Key to Community grant will help our efforts to bring participatory defense hubs to more neighborhoods because we want to give every community impacted by our criminal justice system an opportunity to have their voices heard. We will also bring Defender Association “Know Your Systems” community trainings to more congregations, recreation centers, barber shops, and other forums across the city to strengthen community understanding on the steps in the criminal justice system and where community intervention can make a difference.

The Defender Association also plans to build and strengthen the Pre-Entry coalition, identify gaps in services across the city and identify opportunities to fill them. This will lead to better outcomes for clients, outcomes that strengthens communities and supports safer neighborhoods.

Idea Submitted by:

The Defender Association of Philadelphia

Since 1934, the Defender Association provides client-centered, high-quality defense to adults and children in Philadelphia facing criminal charges. Today, Defender Association attorneys represent people in nearly 70% of the cases in Philadelphia using a team approach that involves social workers, mitigators, investigators, and other professionals who ensure the highest quality of representation.

Under the leadership of Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey, the Defender Association applies our experience in court rooms to advance conversations about meaningful criminal justice reform. We recognize that community involvement is an essential part of criminal justice reform and support the expansion of participatory defense and other community-driven programs to reimagine a criminal justice system that is fundamentally fair and promotes community safety.