Kenney: Council budget plan will derail Philly criminal justice reform

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has spent the last week engaged in tense negotiations with City Council on a plan to use some $95 million in prison budget cuts to help fund the municipal budget. The mayor had initially asked for several tax hikes to fund local schools; Council countered by noting that the city's declining prison population offers better opportunities to realize savings.

But now, the administration – and some prominent criminal justice and educational advocates – say that ongoing prison reform efforts could become a hidden casualty of Council’s competing budget plan.

In a June 7 memo to Council, obtained by City & State PA, Kenney budget director Anna Adams warned members that the proposed $15 to $20 million in annual savings from the closure of Philadelphia’s aging House of Corrections would jeopardize reinvestments in a variety of reform efforts.

“Savings from the closure were intended to pay for a day-reporting pilot, police-assisted diversion, and to allow the city to eliminate cash bail revenue without negative impacts on the city’s budget,” she wrote.

Adams also ticked off new behavioral health therapy and reentry programs, expanded naloxone distribution and mandatory increases in court-appointed counsel fees that the city had planned to pay down with prison savings.

But the Kenney administration was not alone. Many of the aforementioned efforts have been on criminal justice reformers’ wish lists for years – DA Larry Krasner ran for office on his support for many similar initiatives.

“I think our biggest concern in terms of the budget crisis is that that money is directly invested back into communities affected by mass incarceration,” said Reuben Jones, a formerly incarcerated man and a member of Close The Creek, a group that sought to close the House of Corrections. “We think Council’s position is noble but misdirected.”

Jones acknowledged that schools were a key part of city communities and that his and other affiliated groups supported increased school funding – just not at the expense of prison reforms.

“There's a big argument about returning it to schools and everyone wants to support the school district. But I don’t agree that the whole amount should be diverted,” he said. “We worked hard to close the jail. But now that we're here, it feels like there's a U-turn being made.” 

Jones also said that educational advocacy groups like Our City, Our Schools had indicated that they didn’t want school funding at the expense of criminal justice efforts either. 

He instead proposed a compromise: splitting off some money for schools and some for reform programs his group supports. Low-income neighborhoods of color have been hardest hit by mass incarceration and deserve a small piece of the savings realized by prison closure, he argued.

“Council wants to ride in on their white horse and save the day for the school district, but $15 million is a drop in the budget,” he said.

A spokesperson for Council President Darrell Clarke did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Letter to Council Impact of Budget Bill June 7 by Ryan Briggs on Scribd