Jenkins, Players Coalition putting weight behind justice reform movement

Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long and the Players Coalition are in the process of unveiling their most ambitious initiative yet aimed at making significant changes in the criminal justice system both in Philadelphia and across the country.

Pieces of that plan were revealed Sunday night as more than 30 of Philadelphia’s most prominent leaders and elected officials, including District Attorney Larry Krasner, filed in from the pouring rain into a meeting room in South Philadelphia to discuss how they could help support the players’ vision.

Jenkins -- seated at the head of a U-shaped table alongside supporting teammate Michael Bennett -- opened the session. He explained that the Coalition is organizing a large event slated for later in the fall in Philadelphia, which will be centered around assisting those making the transition from prison to civilian life. By providing comprehensive social services, including job training, clothing and opportunities for employment through an actual job fair, the educated bet is that they can reduce the recidivism rate locally. And once the blueprint is established, the idea is to replicate the event in other NFL cities.

The purpose of gathering all of the influencers in one room was not just about planning a single event, however. It was to connect them all -- policymakers with public defenders, company heads with job placement providers -- to ensure the essential components of a complicated system are communicating with one another moving forward to promote greater efficiency.

"There’s a need for services, a need for employment as well as just support when you do get those people out of prison so they have what they need to be a contributing citizen," Jenkins said. "With all of these complexities, we realize there are a ton of people that are doing this work in silos around the city. We’ve got allies all the way from the mayor down, Larry Krasner, and all of the these employers who have jobs that need filling. Then you have this group of citizens that don’t have access to it. So how do we bridge that gap as one large collective?"

The Players Coalition was co-founded by Jenkins and Anquan Boldin to help organize the efforts of those across the league concerned about social injustice. Protests during the playing of the national anthem have been meant to serve as a flare to signal that something is wrong, and bring people to the players to hear what those problems are. The work of the coalition is to educate people on the systemic issues in the criminal justice system that are leading to the imbalanced scales, and come up with methods to do something about it.

A heavy area of focus, and a point of emphasis in the coalition's latest rollout, has been the issue of bail reform. Under the cash bail system, used in many cities across the country, including Philadelphia, a citizen's pre-trial freedom is often determined by whether they can afford to post bond. According to Reuben Jones, cofounder of the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, one in five of those currently imprisoned in Philadelphia "could be home tomorrow" if they had as little as $500 for bail.

"And you see whenever somebody is sitting in jail, if you’re in jail it means you can’t work which means you lose your job," Jenkins said. "You can’t watch your kids while you’re in jail. You’re likely to lose your kids. If you can’t work, you can’t pay rent. So, sitting in a jail cell just because you can’t afford to get out is costing people way more than whatever that bail is. It’s costing them their livelihood and a way to provide, which ultimately will push them back to recidivism and being back where they are at, and this is before they’ve even been convicted of anything. It’s just one of those systems that when you look at it, it’s not making us safer in any point in time because it’s not based on safety, it’s based on how rich you are, and it’s having huge disparities on people of color, and especially poor people. So we’re looking for a more fair way to do that.”

Jenkins, Long and teammate Rodney McLeod met with chief public defenders from across the country in June to gain a deeper understanding of this issue and figure out what proactive measures they could take to help in the fight to change the system. They have started to implement their action plan, which includes using their platforms to educate the public about cash bail.

The upcoming event in Philadelphia is expected to have a cash bail component to it, and this month, NFL players in New Orleans, Seattle, and most likely Atlanta will go "court-watching" to get a look at this system up close so they can relay their findings.

Philadelphia is fertile ground right now when it comes to criminal justice reform. Krasner, the D.A., has proved to be progressive when it comes to issues like cash bail. Thanks to a concerted effort to reduce the prison population, the number of people incarcerated in Philadelphia has shrunk by nearly one-third over the last three years. And the highly publicized incarceration of Meek Mill, who was imprisoned for violating probation on a nearly decade-old drug and gun case prior to being released at the order of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, pushed the issue into the mainstream and helped stoke awareness nationwide.

The greatest power of the NFL players is their ability to do the same.

"Their involvement is really important," Krasner said. "This is a national movement. If you look at the history of national movements, they have required the involvement of celebrities at different times. If you even look at [Martin Luther] King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, who’s up there? You’ve got Mahalia Jackson, a very famous singer at the time, you’ve got Harry Belafonte, a very famous singer at the time, among many others who didn’t just show up for events. They actually advised him and they were able to bring an aspect to the movement that made it incredibly effective.

“I think the Players Coalition has shown a lot of courage. I think they have taken risks with their careers and they have been so persuasive, they have talked the NFL out of what it seems to love best, which is a pile of money (last year, the Players Coalition and the NFL joined in a partnership that calls for the league to contribute $89 million over seven years to projects dealing with criminal justice reform), despite the fact that it is a non-profit. And I think they are to be commended for the reality that they are pushing society in the right direction, and they are pushing the NFL to go in that direction with them.”

The latest push is in the name of some pretty massive goals, which the coalition believes is can help achieve through its multi-faceted approach.

“The big vision is to end cash bail completely as a system," Jenkins said, "but also to create a web of resources that we then divert money to so that we have something that is in place that is showing results, [to demonstrate] that when you give people rehabilitation, you give them training, you give them opportunities for employment, regardless if they’ve committed a crime or not, if they’re re-entering, just even our youth, that they’re better off. And so that’s what we want to track and pay attention to and have that be the mindset, that we don’t just solve the issues of poverty with incarceration, which is what we’ve been doing.”