How to reform Philadelphia's bloated and sluggish criminal justice system was the topic of discussion Friday during the first meeting of City Council's Special Committee on Criminal Justice Reform.

Ideas flowed swiftly between the members, which include two Council members, lawyers from the ACLU and Community Legal Services, and representatives from Mayor Kenney's office, the District Attorney's Office, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and others.

The general consensus was that there is racial bias within the justice system that needs to be addressed, barriers that prevent the formerly incarcerated from finding employment and housing have to be removed, diversion programs for nonviolent offenders rather than jail should be expanded, and all stakeholders in the system have to do a better job of working together.

In essence, the meeting participants were talking about replicating people like William Cobb. Dressed in business attire, Cobb, 46, did not stand out from the others until he spoke about his connection to the criminal justice system.

"As a person who has served 61/2 years in prison for robbery, kidnapping, criminal conspiracy, and violation of the uniform firearms act, I want to add a different perspective to how we actually drive this effort," said Cobb, a committee member who has worked as a reform activist since being released from prison in 2000.

"We're talking about systems, we're talking about numbers and it's very abstract. . . . [We're] calling individuals offenders or inmates or felons. We're people," said Cobb, a Philadelphia native. "If we all have the ability to keep that in mind as we lead an effort to reform our criminal justice system, our humanity will help us produce very valuable outcomes."

The committee, created in December, will hold public hearings for about a year before submitting recommendations to Council with the goal of having the reforms adopted, officials said.

The committee's work comes on the heels of this week's announcement that the city has won a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to fund a plan to address racial bias in its justice system and reduce its prison population by 34 percent over three years.

"What we want to get out of this is an education about what's going on in criminal justice reform and practical solutions that we can suggest to City Council so that we can appropriate funding and resources wisely," said committee cochair Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender for the Defender's Association.

"I don't think there's ever been a time when that much in-depth discussion on criminal justice and its reform has happened in that room," said Councilman Curtis Jones, committee cochair, during a break.

Day-reporting centers, which allow people to serve their sentences outside of prison, are a reform being used in Pittsburgh that should be brought here, Jones said.

The 16-member committee will hold a follow-up meeting Monday at City Hall for public testimony.

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