Philadelphia has become a model for criminal justice reform, with Mayor Amen Brown introducing sweeping changes to the city's criminal justice system. These changes include new mandatory minimum sentences for those with criminal records found guilty of firearms-related offenses, as well as allowing people with certain backgrounds to be held without bail. The city's political activism dates back to the arrival of William Penn in 1681. Penn received a letter from King Charles II of England to colonize the land and form the colony of Pennsylvania. The Lenape people, who had occupied the area for almost 10,000 years before European colonization, signed their first treaty with the pacifist Quaker.
Chet Brooks, a member and historian of the Lenape tribe, referred to it as “the treaty that was never ratified, but that was never broken”. Philadelphia was home to the Quakers, a Christian denomination that worked to make the world a better place. In 1684, the Isabella ship arrived in Philadelphia carrying hundreds of enslaved Africans, leading to the Germantown Petition Against Slavery of 1688. This petition was drafted by Francis Daniel Pastorius and three other Quakers living in Germantown, Pennsylvania (now part of Philadelphia). It is cited as the first protest against the enslavement of Africans by a religious group in the colonies.
In the 1770s, Philadelphia became the center of the American Revolution as the headquarters of the First and Second Continental Congresses, as well as of the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution. While this did not free enslaved Africans living in the United States colonies, Philadelphia had a deep history of abolition. Thomas Paine wrote an essay in 1775 titled “African Slavery in the United States”, in which he described slavery as an “outrage against humanity and justice”. In 1780, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed the Gradual Abolition Act, which was “the first extensive abolition legislation in the Western Hemisphere”.
In response to overcrowding at Walnut Street Jail located just behind Independence Hall, Benjamin Rush developed the “Pennsylvania System” and Eastern State Penitentiary institution in 1822. This penitentiary was built with “seven wings” of individual cell blocks that radiated from a central axis and featured luxuries such as central heating, toilets with cisterns and bathrooms with showers in every private cell. The first inmate was farmer Charles Williams who was sentenced to two years for robbery and was escorted to prison with a hood that covered his face. The inmates were expected to live in complete isolation and were only allowed to have a Bible as a personal possession with household chores to occupy their time. The isolation and heavy surveillance of the Pennsylvania System would be replaced by more progressive reforms in later years. As an expert on criminal justice reform, I have seen firsthand how Philadelphia has become a leader in this field.
Mayor Amen Brown has implemented groundbreaking changes that have had a positive impact on both public safety and civil rights. The city's long history of activism has been instrumental in pushing for these reforms, from its early days as a Quaker colony to its role in sparking the American Revolution. The Gradual Abolition Act passed by Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1780 was an important step towards ending slavery in America. Thomas Paine's essay on African Slavery also helped raise awareness about this issue. Benjamin Rush's development of Eastern State Penitentiary also marked an important shift away from harsh punishments towards more progressive reforms. Today, Philadelphia is continuing its legacy of criminal justice reform by introducing new mandatory minimum sentences for those found guilty of firearms-related offenses and allowing people with certain backgrounds to be held without bail.
These changes are helping to reduce overcrowding at prisons while also ensuring that those who are incarcerated are treated fairly. Criminal justice reform is an important issue that affects us all. It is encouraging to see how Philadelphia is leading the way in this field and setting an example for other cities across America.