The Ray of Hope Project

Candidates Snubbed Experts on Crime - By Linn Washington, Jr.

From the Philadelphia Tribune - April 3, 2007

Raymond Gant expected to hear information and insights when he went to the meeting in North Philly last week for a forum featuring mayoral candidates.

However, Gant left the forum feeling insulted because most of the major candidates seeing the Democratic mayoral nomination didn't show up.

Sponsors of the forum said all candidates had received invitations and confirmed their attendance.

Gant and others attending this forum were there to dialogue with mayoral candidates on the issue each is making a center-piece of his campaign: fighting crime.

Gant and many others attending the forum present unique perspectives on the crime problem and "solutions" proposed by the candidates.

Like many attending that forum, Gant knows the crime perspective of being a former criminal and prison inmate.

"One thousand new cops on the streets is not the answer. Saying you want more police on the streets tells me you're still into that lock'em up and throw away the key mentality," said Gant, who served 12 years in prison for selling drugs.

"Doing the same thing the same way is not going to produce a different result."

Statistics back Gant's assertion.

Pennsylvania's prison population mushroomed from 8,500 in 1980 to nearly 45,000 currently due to conservative policies pushing increased law enforcement and decreased attention to crime causing conditions like joblessness.

Are you safer today?

"The first thing we have to do is put people to work.people gotta work" observed Gant who's turned his life around and helps other ex-offenders become productive.

One reason for holding the forum is the fact that persons released from prison and/or those with criminal records confront a staggering array of structural obstacles road-blocking access to jobs and other life-basics needed to avoid the temptation to seek quick cash through crime.

"When a person with a record can't get a job, find affordable housing or receive any type of governmental assistance, it doesn't take a degree in rocket science to know that with all doors closed, this person will go back to doing what they know how to do," said Leona Smith, one of the panelists at the forum during an interview late last week.

Smith, a renowned homeless activist, is a former director of a female reentry program at Philadelphia's prison system. Decades of government studies document that most inmates lack adequate education and employment skills before incarceration and after release.

Former City Councilman Michael Nutter was the only major candidate to attend this forum.

Campaign workers for Nutter circulated his proposed Re-Entry Employment Program For Ex-Offenders that includes providing tax credits for businesses hiring ex-offenders.

Nutter and Chaka Fattah are the only major candidates who prominently feature employment and educational initiatives for ex-offenders on their campaign Web sites.

Nutter said, "it makes no sense that the Philadelphia residents have so little access to jobs in construction, one of the growth industries in this city."

Mayoral candidate Queena Bass also attended the forum, remarking that "little common sense" exists in public policy.

Congressman Fatah notified forum sponsors that he could not attend due to congressional duties in Washington.

Sponsors received no notice from the other major candidates.

Spokespersons for candidates Dwight Evans and Tom Knox said their campaigns had received no notice about the forum.

A spokesperson for Bob Brady apologized for not attending, saying they were not sure if an invitation was received.

Regardless of the reason for candidates not attending, attendees considered their absences a continuation of treating ex-cons as outcasts.

"You want our vote, but you give us no support. Shame on you," Philly boxer Simon "One Punch" Carr said at the forum.

"Politicians come here when someone famous is here, but not when ex-cons are here," Carr said, referring to a December reducing-violence event at the Met featuring entertainer Bill Cosby.

Malik Aziz, an ex-offender and organizer of the forum, said candidates "didn't show up because they figure we don't count."

All major candidates at least articulate the connection between poverty and crime...a major improvement from political posturing that ignores this critical cause and effect.

However, promising action and actually delivering corrective change once elected are two different things.

Had all major candidates attended this forum, they would have heard a financial analysis of the flip side of their favored anti-crime strategy: hiring more police.

The commissioner of Philadelphia's prison system, Leon King, told those attending the forum that increased arrests would require spending additional millions for expanding prison space plus hiring more personnel from prosecutors to social workers, guards and judges.

"There are too many politicians with proposals to hire new police," King said. "It is a fantasy among the public that prisons are bottomless pits that can absorb all the people that police arrest. We can't deliver."

Philadelphia spent $60 million to expand prison space since 2002 and its prisons remain overcrowded.

Had all major candidates attended this forum, they would have seen posters showing the volunteers of the "Ray of Hope Project". "This program during the past five years has rehabilitated homes of senior citizens and low-income families at no cost to the occupants.

"People who come through our program do not go back to jail," Gant said.

"There are ex-offenders out here who are making positive contributions," he emphasized.

Mayoral candidates, Gant feels, "need to know our voices do count!"

*Linn Washington, Jr. is an award-winning writer who teaches journalism at Temple University.*