Jamira Burley knew both perpetrators and victims of violence in her family and in her Philadelphia community. Now 27, she was raised largely by older brothers because her parents were in and out of jail. “My brothers had to become adults before they could fully experience their childhood,” she said. They took care of the family by whatever means available, which often resulted in run-ins with the law. “Whether that was selling drugs, getting into fights to protect the younger siblings, it wasn't done selfishly, it was done in order to ensure that me and my younger brothers and sisters were taken care of,” she said. Every one of her 10 older brothers is either currently or formerly incarcerated, which does not make her family an anomaly: 36,000 black men are “missing” from Philadelphia primarily because of incarceration or early death, according to a 2015 New York Times analysis. This is the third highest of the cities analyzed, trailing behind New York and Chicago—both with much larger populations.
But Philadelphia may have reached a tipping point. The city is in the midst of what could be a pivotal phase of reform, now helmed by newly-minted mayor Jim Kenney. The magazine Philadelphia has called Kenney, “Mr. Criminal Justice Reform,” citing his record as councilman, which included championing the decriminalization of marijuana in Philadelphia, which he called a civil-rights issue, and campaign promises to eliminate cash bail for some low-level defendants and to give convicted felons a second chance. Kenney’s candidacy was compared to that of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: Both are white, but ran on a populist platform preaching racial, economic, and criminal justice reform. On his first night as mayor in January, rather than celebrate with an inaugural ball, Kenney took the festivities to the streets with a block party. He aims to be a mayor of the people, addressing issues that have plagued the city for decades, including overcrowded jails and tense relations between police and residents.