For LaTonya Myers, receiving a citation from Mayor Jim Kenney in 2018 for her work as the Defender Association of Philadelphia’s first-ever Bail Navigator felt like the moment she’d finally overcome her past — the 2011 conviction on drug- and gun-possession charges and the 14-year sentence of prison, probation, and parole that followed.
Then, she got a notice in the mail: She was in violation of probation for missing an appointment while she was being honored at City Hall.
It felt as if the probation officer wasn’t interested in her accomplishments, only her failures, she said. “I was scared — because here I am going to [the city prisons on] State Road to help people get home, and I could have been taken into custody.”
That’s when Myers, 30, decided to file for early termination of probation — and to start a movement spreading the word about the thousands of people just like her: doing their best to do good, but living under constant threat of incarceration. Her first step is to give out what she’s calling the Probation Awards, a ceremony recognizing those people and lifting them up as candidates for early termination.
“People can be valedictorians and student-body presidents after they made a mistake. And if you let people go, they can thrive even further — without being in survival mode, having one foot in the jail and one foot in the street," she said.
Myers brought together reform advocates and public defenders, as well as state senators and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, for an award ceremony Thursday evening in the grand mock trial room at Drexel University’s Kline School of Law.
Before the ceremony began, Myers gathered her honorees in a hallway and urged them to speak their truth: “Think about everything the DA and the judge thought about you. Let them know that you are not throwaways, that you are not incorrigible.”
Honorees included Meghan Ross, serving a nine-year probation term for a drug charge; though she’s sober now, and a working mom, she was recently denied early termination of probation; and Michael Luna, who likens probation to the feeling of cinder blocks on his shoulders, is now in his final semester at Community College of Philadelphia, with a 3.9 GPA.
Monique Mull, who created a nonprofit record label for formerly and currently incarcerated artists, will mark the end of 20 years on parole in February. What she’s most looking forward to is the sense of personal safety: “I can call the police if need be, without the fear of police-contact violations.”
Curtistine Willis, who spent 18 years on probation for her only criminal conviction, related to squatting in an abandoned property while she was homeless, said it was a rare moment of recognition in what had been a lifetime of hardship. She’s spent that time providing elder care and babysitting, often for single mothers who can’t afford to pay for the service — all without recognition, until now.
Also recognized was Joseph Baynes, one of more than 300 juvenile lifers in Philadelphia resentenced to terms including lifetime parole in recent years.
Abd’allah Lateef, another former lifer now on lifetime parole, presented the award. In the honor, Lateef said, “What I hear is a cry — and indeed a demand — to recognize our humanity. The indignity that continues post-release, through probation and parole is an indictment against all of us.”
A secondary goal was to demonstrate the need for systemwide reform in a state with one of the nation’s highest rates of probation and parole, and unusual laws that keep people under supervision for decades.
State Sens. Larry Farnese and Art Haywood, Philadelphia Democrats, told the honorees they were important to that fight.
“It’s important for the City of Philadelphia and the state to recognize those who have overcome the odds, and to move beyond this punishment-only approach. This is a step along the way,” said Haywood, who presented each honoree with his own commendation.
It’s the most high-profile effort yet by Myers’ fledgling nonprofit, Above All Odds, which organizes bookbag giveaways for LGBT kids at the Attic Youth Center, and collects jackets left at the Gayborhood clubs Woody’s and Voyeur to distribute in the wintertime.
Myers invited judges, prosecutors, lawmakers, and probation officials, hoping these stories will connect with decision-makers and cast those under supervision in a different light. She wants to make early terminations more routine; many people don’t know they can petition for that, and get free help from the Defender Association.
She recalled when, last June, she testified in Harrisburg about the work she’s done to transform her life, and a representative for the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association called her an “outlier.”
“It was like a blow to the stomach,” she said. That’s why, she said, Probation Awards are necessary. “This is to say we’re not going to conform to the narratives you put on us.”