PLBC announces new Subcommittee on Criminal Justice Reform

HARRISBURG, March 14 – State Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Phila., chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, today announced the creation of a new Subcommittee on Criminal Justice Reform.

The subcommittee will be co-chaired by Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Phila./Delaware, and Sen. Sharif Street, D-Phila., both attorneys. Rep. Jason Dawkins, D-Phila., and Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Phila./Delaware, will also serve as members of the subcommittee.

Harris said, “Criminal justice reform has become one of the leading issues in Pennsylvania and across our nation. I’m excited that our caucus will be spearheading this initiative and pushing for much needed reforms in the state legislature. While we have made some movement on providing second chances to returning citizens, there are countless other avenues that must be explored if we are to fully restructure our criminal justice system.”

The subcommittee will push an aggressive legislative agenda and will also be vital in the creation of a criminal justice advisory group made up of formerly incarcerated people and expert legal practitioners. The advisory committee will be co-chaired by Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and Bill DeWeese, former state representative and the 135th speaker of the House.

Among his many legal and legislative accomplishments, Street has supported numerous bills that would reform Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system. One bill in particular (S.B. 942), a companion bill to H.B. 135 introduced by Dawkins, would extend parole eligibility to people serving life sentences after serving 15 years in prison. The bill would also extend parole eligibility retroactively to people sentenced prior to the effective date of the bill.

“I am pleased that Chairman Harris has seen fit to create a special committee to address the issues of criminal justice reform in Pennsylvania,” Street said. “Disparities in justice disproportionately affect people of color throughout the Commonwealth. It is then fitting that the PLBC has taken the lead on behalf of, not only people of color, but low-income wage earners, the working poor and otherwise disadvantaged people of all ethnic backgrounds. I am humbled, and thankful, that my colleagues have entrusted me as co-chairman with Representative McClinton, in doing this most important work. We will be deliberate in pursuing progressive criminal justice reform with, in the words of Dr. King, ‘the fierce urgency of now.’”

McClinton currently serves on the House Judiciary Committee, which reviews bills relating to law enforcement and corrections. She was also recently appointed by House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody to serve on the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission, which is charged with creating and maintaining a consistent and rational statewide sentencing policy through the adoption of guidelines that promote fairer and more uniform sentencing throughout the commonwealth. She is the first woman from the House of Representatives to serve on the commission.

“I am honored to lend my voice and many years of service as a former public defender to reforming Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system,” McClinton said. “While representing some of our most vulnerable residents in the courtroom, I learned firsthand what changes need to occur. I have already introduced legislation that would modernize our pre-trial and bail procedures, establish a fund to better train public defenders across the Commonwealth and automatically expunge a person’s criminal record if they are acquitted of charges. This role will allow me to further focus my attention on ensuring that the system is fair and just for both victims and the accused. I look forward to working with Senator Street and my colleagues in the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus to see that we have a fairer and more humane criminal justice system.”

Bradford-Grey has spent years breaking down barriers and pushing for reforms in Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system – long before it was popular. Prior to serving as the chief defender for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, she was the first African-American and the second woman to serve as chief public defender for the Montgomery County Public Defender’s Office.

“As a legal practitioner, I am excited that this subcommittee is being formed,” Bradford-Grey said. “As practitioners, we can offer sensible and evidence-based information on these issues to effectively inform policy. I am grateful for this opportunity and proud serve with Representative Harris.”

DeWeese served in a number of leadership roles in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives while representing the 50th Legislative District: including Democratic whip, Democratic leader and speaker.  

DeWeese said, “After 36 years in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives – and almost two in a medium-security state penitentiary – I am highly motivated to enter the battle on behalf of criminal justice reform in general and against the mass incarceration of African-American and Hispanic youth in particular. Young men that I was incarcerated with made serious mistakes; however, they are not beyond redemption and we need to give them the tools to reintegrate within our Pennsylvania community.”