Philadelphia Prison Commissioner Blanche Carney and Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey recently joined forces to come up with a plan. The goal was to make things easier for folks charged with a crime — and the chief defender said having Carney’s support on the project was anything but typical.

“I’ve worked with prison commissioners before,” Bradford-Grey told Billy Penn. “Her understanding of this world of justice and social ills really helps.”

The two women implemented in 2017 a new system that allows someone who’s been convicted to be present during their own probation hearing, at least via video. Now defense attorneys can see, interview and explain things to their clients during these pivotal proceedings.

Carney said the move could help save money by getting people out of jail. “It gives all the criminal justice partners an opportunity to discuss the case with the defendant,” she said. “[T]hat person potentially is released from custody saving days in jail.”

The pair’s collaborative relationship is a snapshot of the unique atmosphere Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw will walk into.

When she’s sworn in as Philadelphia’s 18th top cop on Monday, Outlaw will add to a criminal justice leadership cohort that’s almost entirely made up of Black women.

Those involved see the fact that these agencies are mostly helmed by Black women as a crucial component in some recent reforms, and in efforts to enact more. Sharing a common identity, they can communicate, relate and problem solve at work in a uniquely effective way.

It’s additionally noteworthy because traditionally African American women experience more discrimination, lower pay and higher professional barriers than most other Americans, who don’t have to navigate both race and gender disparities in the workplace.

Call it Philly Black Girl Magic — only because Philly Black Women Working in Criminal Justice Magic doesn’t have the same ring.

Along with Carney and Bradford-Grey, the club includes, Sheriff Rochelle Bilal, Probation and Parole Chief Darlene Miller, Deputy Managing Director for Criminal Justice and Public Safety Vanessa Garrett Harley, and Common Pleas Court Administrative Judge Jacqueline F. Allen.

MORE: Get to know the Black women leaders in Philly’s criminal justice system

Having Black women in all of these positions is a rarity among big East Coast cities.

In Washington D.C., the prison and police commissioners are both men. Baltimore’s head of police is male. Same for New York City. Chicago’s sheriff, who also oversees the department of corrections, is a man.

Their racial and gender similarity in Philadelphia, the women say, has proven beneficial.

“Women are relational,” said Carney. “It’s innate in us. We can come together, we can identify an issue, and we can walk away with a plan.”

Incorporating empathy throughout the system

A social worker before she was appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney in 2016, Prison Commissioner Carney said she’s been trying to incorporate empathy throughout an otherwise cold system. She recently launched one of the nation’s few in-jail Medication Assisted Treatment programs for incarcerated people suffering from addiction.

“When the [opioid epidemic] hit Philadelphia as it did, and we saw the need, it wasn’t a wait and see approach,” Carney said. “We knew we had to engage folks that were receptive in treatment, and help them transition. Recovery is multifaceted.”

Five years ago, Philadelphia received a MacArthur Foundation grant to reduce the number of people in city jails, with a goal of halving it by the end of 2020.

Under Carney’s leadership, the prison population has so far dropped more than 40%, from over 8,082 to around 4,700. The effort was collaborative, she said, with other women in the leadership cadre coming to the table alongside offices like that of the District Attorney to make it happen.

While the prison population is down overall, Black people still make up 70%. That’s up from 68% five years ago.

Probation violations have been a big driver stocking Philly’s jails.

As of last year, people on probation detainers accounted for about 55% of the city’s incarcerated population. It’s a topic where the women in Philly’s criminal justice clique don’t always see eye to eye.

Probation and Parole Chief Miller has come under fire for a perceived lack of progress on the issue. Her department has continued locking up people for minor infractions, even though some of them, the Inquirer reported, may not have committed a crime.

The situation led Chief Defender Bradford-Grey to petition the state Supreme Court last year, asking them to intervene in the practice, which she called “illegal.”

Miller, meanwhile, said her department supervises about 24,000 people on probation and parole, not including those with active arrest warrants. Of that 24k, per Miller, fewer than 1,900 are currently behind bars on detainers — less than 8%.

She’s trying to reduce that number further, she said. Through her office’s new absconder review program, people with decades-old outstanding violations get the opportunity to have their warrants dismissed. Since the program started in September 2019, nearly 500 cases have been closed.

“We’re reducing what the detainer population is,” Miller said, “so those ‘wanted card’ numbers are coming down.”

Keir Bradford-Grey is Chief Defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

‘What would I want for my family?’

For the women in these criminal justice leadership roles, cases aren’t necessarily open and shut, said Bradford-Grey. She suggested many take an approach that’s more “What would I want done to me or my family members?”

When she became Philly’s head defense attorney in 2015, Bradford-Grey instituted a program called participatory defense. The initiative relies on bi-coastally trained community volunteers to add empathy and familiarity to the otherwise technical judicial process.

“Participatory defense hubs, that is powerful,” said Assata Thomas, director of the Institute of Community Justice at Philadelphia FIGHT. “These innovative ideas that we as Black women bring to the table, I think are [top quality], bar none.”

Cash bail is another issue that finds Bradford-Grey at odds with other Black women in the group.

The defender wants to eliminate the cash bail entirely, agreeing with many advocates that it victimizes people with lower income. While the Pa. Supreme Court has said it would not consider any proposals to abolish the system, it is looking at “alleged systemic failures” of municipalities’ use of cash bail.

Common Pleas Court Administrative Judge Allen is taking things under consideration. “Each judge here in Philadelphia does work within the parameters of what the law allows,” Allen said about the possibility that she’d direct her staff to limit the use of cash bail.

Appointed in 2016, Allen’s first undertaking was mammoth: she helmed the effort to resentence juveniles serving life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court found the practice unconstitutional.

To get it done, Allen enlisted the help of another Black woman, retired judge Kathryn Streeter Lewis, and also pulled to the table the Defender Association, the District Attorney, the Department of Health and Human Services, and various private criminal defense attorneys.

Allen touted the “juvie lifers” resentencing project as an example of how she and Bradford-Grey were able to work together.

“We had our differences… and we had to continue to talk… and we did, so that at the end of the day, all of us could claim victory,” Allen said.

The cohort accomplished the resentencing of 325 juveniles in just three years, faster than many other states.

MORE: Get to know the Black women leaders in Philly’s criminal justice system

Battling violence, both in government and outside it

Overall crime is down in Philadelphia, but last year brought 292 gun homicides, the most in more than a decade. Since the start of this year, another 24 shooting deaths have added to the count.

Appointed as Philly’s deputy managing director for criminal justice in 2018, Vanessa Garrett Harley oversees the Office of Violence Prevention — and acknowledged there’s work to be done.

Garrett Harley said attacking the problem alongside other Black women leaders can be very helpful. “I do think often we tend to be more relational,” she said. “We all talk together and figure out how we utilize what limited resources we have for the good of the city.”

Under Garrett Harley’s leadership, the city has instituted a grant program for neighborhood anti-violence orgs, set up a new office dedicated to reentry and helped create an L&I program that cleans and seals abandoned property in high-violence areas.

Keeping properties from becoming abandoned in the first place is something Sheriff Rochelle Billal said she plans to work on.

Bilal became the first-ever Black woman sheriff in Philadelphia when she was elected in November after upending the establishment by winning big in a primary battle last spring. The sheriff said her people-centered plans for the office include setting up a nonprofit designed to combat home foreclosures, and by default, sheriff’s sales.

During her 27-year career as a Philly police officer, Bilal earned the nickname “Angela Davis” thanks to her advocacy for Black people.

She is planning to implement sensitivity training for deputies, she told Billy Penn. Under the previous sheriff the department was plagued by allegations of sexual harassment.

Sheriff Rochelle Bilal is the first woman and African American elected to the office Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

‘A sister about to come to Philly’

City government is notoriously bureaucratic, but meaningful relationships between justice partners can help cut through red tape.

Prison Commissioner Carney recalled a moment when her relationship with Probation Chief Miller helped address and a months-long conflict in a matter of minutes.

“One of the things that is unique has been, I pick up the phone, they pick up the phone, and we say, ‘Hey, I want to run something by you,’” Carney said. “And that’s not normally the process. It’s normally, you know, let me send an email. Let me get on a calendar.”

This burgeoning sisterhood is a departure from incoming PPD Chief Outlaw’s other professional experiences.

Oakland’s Alameda County, where Outlaw served for two decades, has a man in the positions of sheriff and chief defender. In Portland, where Outlaw spent two years as chief of police before she took the position in Philadelphia, both the county sheriff and chief defender are also men.

The “sisters” involved in the city’s justice system are ready to greet her.

“She’s a sister about to come to Philly,” said Allen, the common pleas judge. “[T]here is a community of women who want to say welcome.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...