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Rare agreement for conservatives and liberals: Moving more people out of prison in Philly

At first blush, there's nothing unusual about Julian "Julz" Curry's story.

At 32, he's been in prison, off and on, for about 10 years — the last time, about two years.

There has been no headline-grabbing violence, just a steady drip of drug and theft convictions, from possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine to stealing his grandmother's car along with her cash, , jewelry, and some DVDs.

Two experts, former District Attorney Lynne Abraham and Philadelphia Defender Association policy director Mark Houldin, say Curry's situation is a common one: the fallout of an early crime, like the burglary Curry committed at age 20, coupled with drug use and a lack of job prospects, pulls many people into a vortex of jail, probation, and more jail.

The real question now is whether Curry, a North Philadelphia singer-songwriter and factory laborer, can stay out of jail.

"I definitely don't want to go back on that road anymore," he said in November, on a break from his job at DiSorb Systems in North Philadelphia, a position he would lose a month later. "It's been a rough road."

Luckily for Curry, there seems to be a shift in how society views people who have come out of prison.

There's a growing agreement by liberals and conservatives that too many people are incarcerated for too long. The system is too costly — Pennsylvania just announced it would close two prisons due to budgetary problems — and the people coming out of prison often can't support themselves and their families, causing problems for society.

Legislative solutions, including changes to criminal record laws, are being crafted around the nation, including in Pennsylvania.

And in Philadelphia, a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation will fund efforts to reduce the number of inmates, mostly by paying attention to pretrial procedures that hold people unnecessarily.

It's also personal — with so many incarcerated, more people have friends or family caught in the system. That also goes for lawmakers, who have seen colleagues sentenced to prison, including former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane.

All of this is why Ann Schwartzman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, with 30 years in the field, finds herself unusually upbeat. "There is such a focus on reentry that good things are happening," Schwartzman said.

"It's too expensive to keep people in prison for $35,000 to $45,000 a year," said Schwartzman, who will soon shift to a policy position in the Prison Society. "The popular expression is, 'We want taxpayers, not tax burdens.' "

To be sure, many people coming from prison will return to a life of crime.

That's been the experience of career prosecutor George Parry, now a criminal defense attorney in Philadelphia. "I'm sure there are people who make a mistake and go to prison and change their lives," he said. "I've just never met any of them."

He said courts make allowances to keep people with first or less serious offenses out of prison. "They try not to incarcerate them. By the time they go to prison, they already have a pretty serious criminal history to start."

So what's going on?

In New Jersey, the focus has been keeping people out of prison in the first place. The Garden State streamlined its parole process and gave judges more flexibility in sentencing low-level drug offenders.

The result is that New Jersey became a national leader in reducing state prison populations — Jersey cut the number of state prisoners by 26 percent from 1999 to 2012, even as prison rolls rose elsewhere, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based research group.

Three in 10 people released from New Jersey's state prisons are reincarcerated in three years, according to the state's most recent report.

Now to improve those numbers, said Ryan Haygood, who leads the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, the emphasis is on small, but important details — getting identification, driver's licenses, and public assistance for people coming out of prison.

"There's still a lot of work to be done," he said.

"On the books, there are more than 1,000 legal impediments [to successful reentry], 600 of them in employment, such as the kinds of licenses you can hold," he said.

In Pennsylvania, a law went into effect Nov. 14 allowing people to petition the court to seal criminal records for low-level misdemeanors. And this year, Republicans and Democrats are working together on the "Clean Slate" bill that would automatically seal certain records without requiring a petition.

In Philadelphia, the city has set a goal of cutting the number of people who return to prison by 25 percent over five years.

The Philadelphia Reentry Coalition has 65 partners, from prosecutors to public defenders.

"There's a trend of reentry coalitions forming," said Aviva Tevah, who coordinates the coalition through the managing director's office of public safety. "People are realizing that no single program is going to solve the problems we have identified."

The statistics show the scale of the problem:

Pennsylvania's state prison population has steadily risen since 1940, when 7,006 were incarcerated, reaching a high of 51,700 in November 2013. Since then, it has fallen slightly, hovering just under 50,000. About 60 percent return within three years.

In Pennsylvania's state prisons, about 20,000 of the 49,914 inmates hail from Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks, or Delaware Counties. Of the 20,000 who come out each year, 6,831 return to the region, including 4,032 to Philadelphia.

In the city, there's considerable churn, with 36,000 people moving through its jail system in a year at the rate of about 100 people admitted a day. Eight in 10 are there pretrial and have not been convicted, spokeswoman Shawn Hawes said.

To slow the churn, some reentry partners include federal judges, who work with parole officers to reduce recidivism; Philadelphia Works, the quasi-governmental agency that links employers to job seekers; law groups, including Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity; local universities; and federal, state, and city agencies.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams' office has been actively involved.

Preventing crime and reducing recidivism are keys to safety, he said.

"Anytime you're talking about protecting public safety, you must proceed with caution, particularly when we're talking about anything connected to physical violence," Williams emailed.

"Reentry and expungement programs have to be part of our overall plan. The record is clear: Rehabilitation and reentry programs help make us safer; people who go through rehabilitation and reentry, and are able to become productive members of society, are far less likely to commit a crime again."

Ceciley Bradford-Jones, the new head of RISE, the city's reentry program, shares the general optimism. "The conversation is no longer taboo," she said. "It has grown beyond simply a social service issue to a commerce issue, a municipal sustainability issue, a class equity issue, a city vibrancy issue.

"We are getting very close to a solution."

In her office, Schwartzman, a reentry coalition partner, keeps a cheat sheet on her desk, ready to grab when she has to speak or be interviewed. The words "Barriers and Obstacles" top the page, in bold type.

She lists 23 of them — each significant enough to stop even the most resilient former inmate.

They can't readily get identification cards or driver's licenses. Life and social skills are needed, but they don't have them. They lack jobs and education. Many are illiterate or poor students. They have health problems: addiction, diabetes, hepatitis, and mental-health issues.

They often lack food, clothing, furniture, or housing. They need transportation and child care. They may be in danger of losing permanent parental rights for their children. Family relationships may be in tatters.

Not insignificant, she said, is the "Rip Van Winkle" syndrome. The world has changed — think about ATMs, self-checkout at grocery stores, cellphones, smartphones, the internet, and Uber.

Even with all that, the key to stopping the cycle is keeping former inmates employed, Bradford-Jones said.

As much optimism as there is, she said, a major key will still be "changing the anxious mind-set of those in hiring positions."

Executives may say they want to hire people out of prisons, but the message doesn't always reach the human resources departments, she said.

In North Philadelphia, when Brooks Hulitt became president of DiSorb Systems, which manufactures chemical compounds that disinfect medical waste, he inherited Curry and a few other workers through a temp agency.

Hulitt made them full time and gave them a raise.

"Doing what we do, where we do it, the demographics — a lot of people have criminal records," he said. In other words, that's the available labor force.

This year, through the Philadelphia Re-Entry Employment Program, DiSorb will qualify for a $10,000-per-worker tax credit against the city's business-privilege tax. With four workers, it'll nearly wipe out DiSorb's business tax bill, he said. There's also a federal tax break of $2,500 a person.

"If they took the tax credits away, would I stop hiring" people returning from prison?

"No," he said.

Curry's chances of staying out of jail are mixed.

It doesn't help that he's had multiple arrests or is African American — a group that tends to be rearrested more often.

In March 2014, Curry got a ticket for "theft of services," court documents show, when he didn't pay $2.25 to ride the Market-Frankford El.

He had enough money for rent, he said, but not enough for his fare. The ticket violated his probation. Curry returned to jail for two years, including work release, when he got the DiSorb job.

These days, he's older and has been employed — good signs. And, he yearns for stability so he can nurture his music career under the name Julian Tha Don. He'll play at Bourbon & Branch in Northern Liberties next Sunday.

"These guys take care of me," he said in November at DiSorb. "Me losing this job right now would be terrible."

By mid-December, however, he had lost the job, due to some disagreements with coworkers, although Hulitt liked Curry's energy and work ethic. And so, once again, Curry found himself working day gigs through a temp agency.

"I'm not proud of my decisions," Curry said. "But I know my intentions."

Inquirer staff writer Aswin Mannepalli contributed to this report.