Meet 6 Black women leaders in Philly’s criminal justice system

From sheriff to public defender to prison commissioner, these women are in charge.

blackwomen-leaders-01
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
layla

Danielle Outlaw will make history Monday when she’s sworn in as the first ever Black woman police chief in Philadelphia. Her appointment adds to a growing cohort of African American woman leading criminal justice-related agencies in the city.

“We have some powerful women in some powerful positions,” Assata Thomas, director at the Philadelphia FIGHT Institute of Community Justice, told Billy Penn. “I believe we can make a dent in Philadelphia.”


MORE: PPD Commissioner Outlaw joins an unusual situation: Philly’s criminal justice arena is full of Black women leaders


Below, meet six Black women making change across Philadelphia’s criminal justice system.

Vanessa Garrett Harley, deputy managing director for criminal justice

Vanessa Garrett Harley is deputy managing director for criminal justice and public safety in Philadelphia

Vanessa Garrett Harley is deputy managing director for criminal justice and public safety in Philadelphia

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

North Philly native Vanessa Garrett Harley, 56, was appointed by the mayor to oversee Philadelphia’s Office of Criminal Justice in spring 2018 after a lengthy career with the city. With that role she took charge of dealing with city jails, the Office of Violence Prevention, parts of the Department of Licenses and Inspections, town watch and more.

When she was appointed, Philadelphia was in the midst of spiking violence that saw 353 homicides, even amid a decrease in overall crime. Garrett Harley said her priority was to reassess the office. In January 2019, she released the Roadmap to Safer Communities. The report, which looks at violence as a public health crisis, was criticized as rudimentary.

“I’m not saying that that report is rocket science,” Garrett Harley told Billy Penn. “Many of the things listed in the report [were] being done, but was it being brought together and aligned and put together in a comprehensive plan.”

Since that plan took effect, L&I and it’s dedicated cleanup organization CLIP have hired 13 young employees from neighborhoods affected by violence, cleaned and sealed nearly 300 properties and created a city rapid response team that deploys into a neighborhood after a gun violence incident, Garret Harley said.

Blanche Carney, prison commissioner

Blanche Carney is the Commissioner of Prisons in Philadelphia

Blanche Carney is the Commissioner of Prisons in Philadelphia

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Blanche Carney became the first Black woman prison commissioner in Philadelphia in 2016. She began her career as a social worker, and decided to work in corrections after a particularly heart wrenching incident with a child who had to end a visit with her incarcerated mother.

Under her watch, after jail population dropped more than 40%, City Council grilled Carney about why the prisons budget had actually increased. One reason, she says: Medication Assisted Treatment.

Fewer than 1% of jails nationwide offer people behind bars all three drugs used to address opioid addiction, according to the Washington Post — and Philadelphia is now one of them. Data from Carney’s office shows 40% of the incarcerated women who received treatment in jail went on to get additional treatment within three months of release.

Carney’s office also established a “warm handoff” protocol that helps cushion the shock returning citizens feel when they suddenly have no guaranteed medical, mental health, addiction or other services. A social worker at heart, Carney said it’s important to give people tools to navigate life after incarceration.

“Being hard on crime locking people in is not the answer,” she told Billy Penn.

Darlene Miller, adult probation and parole chief

Darlene Miller is Chief Probation Officer for Philadelphia

Darlene Miller is Chief Probation Officer for Philadelphia

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Darlene Miller, 60, got her start in corrections in 1993, after initial aspirations to be an FBI agent. Last January, she made history as Philadelphia’s first Black woman chief of adult probation and parole.

Under Miller’s leadership, Philly launched a voter registration effort for people with felonies. Since last fall, 76 voters with past convictions have been registered. Thanks to its success, Miller said her office will continue the program.

Months after she was installed, Miller also helped create a program to eliminate “wanted cards” that were decades old. The absconder review program brings together parole and probation officers, with the courts poring through the 8,000 cases of individuals with years-old probation violations.

In the five months since the effort began, nearly 500 cases have been closed and almost 400 people have been removed from the wanted list.

Jacqueline F. Allen, administrative judge for common pleas court

Jacqueline Allen is a judge in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas

Jacqueline Allen is a judge in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Judge Jacqueline F. Allen spent most of her four-decade legal career on the civil side of things, until three years ago she was given authority over the administrative arm of the common pleas court trial division.

She entered the criminal fray at a pivotal time. The Supreme Court had just ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence minors to life in prison and charged states and municipalities with resentencing every juvenile lifer case. Allen, 68, spearheaded Philadelphia’s successful effort to resentence its more than 300 cases within three years.

In 2017, Allen also approved the first pay increase in 20 years for the city’s public defenders.

Keir Bradford-Grey, chief public defender

Keir Bradford-Grey is Chief Defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia

Keir Bradford-Grey is Chief Defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Keir Bradford-Grey works with every arm of the criminal justice reform system as she manages the city’s Defender Association. Under her leadership, the organization has thrown its weight behind robust pre-entry practices that connect at-risk populations with services and resources to keep people out of jail.

Another unique Defender Association initiative is participatory defense. Modeled after a San Jose-based program, it puts hubs inside communities and trains volunteers on the details of the criminal justice system, and how to create biographical videos about defendants.

The volunteers talk to the person charged with a crime, their employers, and their family and loved ones. It helps hold the courts, and public defenders accountable, said Bradford-Grey, with a constant reminder that the person on trial has a life outside of their mistake.

Philly also opened the first participatory defense hub dedicated to children charged with crimes. Since the program launched in mid-2018, the city’s seven hubs have closed 46 cases. The program boasts an almost 100% court appearance rate, a spokesperson said.

Rochelle Bilal, sheriff

Sheriff Rochelle Bilal is the first woman and African American elected to the office

Sheriff Rochelle Bilal is the first woman and African American elected to the office

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Early in her 27-year career with the Philadelphia Police Department, newly-elected Sheriff Rochelle Bilal earned the nickname Angela Davis, after the Black Panther Party member.

“Soon as I pulled up it was like, ‘Here come Angela Davis,'” Bilal told Billy Penn.

She took that energy to the Guardian Civic League, the union for Black officers, over which she has presided since 2007. As sheriff, Bilal plans to inject a continued spirit of advocacy into an office that’s been plagued by corruption, sexual harassment and intimidation during past administrations.

Bilal became the first woman sheriff in Philadelphia when she was sworn in last month. Still in transition, Bilal said she’s talking to staff about what’s working and what’s broken inside the office.

She plans to institute training for deputies to make the sheriff’s “a kinder, gentler office.” Bilal also wants to support the creation of an outside nonprofit in partnership with the Register of Wills (led by Tracey Gordon, another Black woman) that will help families pay costs associated with protecting a property from foreclosure and keep folks in their homes.

“I’m gonna continue to be an advocate for those who don’t have and continue to do the work and change helpfully change this office to be better,” Bilal said.