If Philly has 99 problems, about half have something to do with criminal justice.

At least that was the tenor of The Atlantic’s packed-house discussion today, one of many the national publication is hosting throughout this DNC week. Tuesday’s event was billed as a big-picture discussion of criminal justice reform, but most of the specific mentions went to Philadelphia. It makes sense. The MacArthur Foundation, a co-sponsor of the event, recently gave Philly a $3.5 million grant to put towards cutting its prison population by more than a third and also address some of the overarching racial disparities in the justice system. There’s a lot of work to be done.

The panels contained a who’s who of local players, including Mayor Jim Kenney, District Attorney Seth Williams, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, and Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender at the Philadelphia Defender’s Association.

For Kenney, reducing the swollen prison population means Philly has to move past its 1970s-era incarceration mentality. He recalled when, after receiving the Democratic nomination for mayor last year, a woman from his native South Philly told him in shrill voice, “you’re the next Frank Rizzo!” He replied with a firm “no.” Nonetheless, in his conversation with Wetzel and the Atlantic’s senior editor Ron Brownstein, Kenney lamented that the lock-’em-all-up mentality of Rizzo’s Philadelphia still has a vicegrip on the city today.

Between 1999 and 2008, Philly’s inmate population increased by 45 percent. It hit its peak in 2008, but according to the Vera Institute, the local incarceration rate is still triple the average rate among the 40 largest counties in the nation. Why so high? Kenney criticized higher-ups on the political food chain.

“If you fix the education and poverty situation, your jail population will go down,” he said, referencing the city’s infamous deep poverty rate and broken school system. “But the people in Harrisburg don’t want to fund education, but will build a jail in a second. There are counties in Pennsylvania where their entire industry is based on incarceration.”

Last year, Philadelphia City Council tossed around a proposal to build a $400 million prison to replace the ailing facilities on State Road in the Northeast. The idea, which was eventually put on ice, brought up serious considerations about the economic toll of incarceration. It costs the city about $140 a day per prisoner, Kenney noted.

In terms of immediate goals, the panelists kept returning to the broken bail system.

Pre-trial inmates make up roughly two-thirds of inmates on State Road, and Philadelphia has been desperately looking to reform the broken bail system that keeps so many cash-strapped individuals behind bars as they wait for their day in court.

“Bail is the key to both the state system and the local system,” Wetzel said. “You say it’s about public safety. But if I’m a rich guy who sexually assaults someone and you’re a poor guy who steals a six-pack of tighty whities from Walmart, and your bail is $50 and my bail is $50 million, and I have $5 million, I’m getting out. You don’t have $50, you’re staying in. That’s not about public safety. That’s about money, and our system is predicated on money.”

Bradford-Grey, speaking in another panel, added the city’s probation detainer system is also clogging the prisons. This problem was highlighted in a recent report by City & State PA. Probation detainers make up about one-third of the local prison population. Many individuals on supervised release are sent back to prison for petty offenses.

In another panel between Vikrant Reddy, a research fellow from the right-leaning Koch Foundation, and Julia Stasch, president of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, there was great deal of optimism about bipartisan consensus, even if the specific approaches remained blurry.

The drug war is another question. Philadelphia has made progressive policy moves — decriminalizing marijuana arrests, then other types of misdemeanors — in recent years that have also taken weight off of the city’s prisons. Kenney made a show of frustration, however, that high-level narcotics are still policed so heavily.

“We’re locking these guys up for selling drugs on the street corner. The largest drug dealers in the world are the pharmaceutical companies.”

Kenney and Wetzel also addressed the slight uptick in the city’s homicides. The longitudinal trend, of course, is that violent crime has fallen dramatically over the last two decades. Philly’s homicide rate hit a 50-year low in 2015. Nonetheless, the Republican nominee for President has been running, in no small part, on a public safety platform. To this, Kenney returned to one of his favorite themes: Gun control.

“I don’t understand the disconnect by the people who are unfettered by the availability of guns, and on the other hand argue about crime being high or shootings being high,” Kenney said. The audience clapped. “We find ourselves at a loss. Because the feds won’t do anything about it. And the state, well, the state of Pennsylvania is gun heaven.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...